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New Horizons flyby
Artwork shows the New Horizons probe flying by a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69. (Credit: NASA)

Almost a year after New Horizons’ unprecedented flyby of Pluto, NASA has given the official go-ahead for the probe to fly past another icy object in the Kuiper Belt in 2019.

At the same time, the space agency decided to keep the Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, rather than sending it out to another asteroid known as Adeona.

The decisions are part of NASA’s process for extending its planetary missions into the 2017-2018 time frame.

New Horizons’ extension means that mission operations will be supported as the piano-sized probe makes its way toward a Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. The object was detected in 2014 during a Hubble Space Telescope search for post-Pluto targets that could be reached by New Horizons. The mission team already has been maneuvering the spacecraft in preparation for a flyby on Jan. 1, 2019.

The Kuiper Belt is the icy ring of material beyond the orbit of Neptune, extending out as far as 5 billion miles (55 astronomical units) from the sun.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said in today’s announcement. “We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

2014 MU69 is thought to be 20 to 30 miles wide. It lies a billion miles beyond Pluto, which is 3 billion miles from Earth.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Dawn mission will continue to circle Ceres, which is a mere 337 million miles away. The Dawn spacecraft was launched in 2007 and spent more than a year orbiting the asteroid Vesta before moving on to Ceres.

On Thursday, Dawn officially completed its primary mapping mission at Ceres. Among the highlights of that mission were close-up looks at mysterious bright spots on Ceres’ surface that scientists suspect were created by the upwelling of salty subsurface water.

There had been talk of taking Dawn out of Cerean orbit and sending it to fly past Adeona in 2019, but today Green said the spacecraft would stay put.

“The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun – has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

NASA said it would continue supporting seven other missions in need of extensions, contingent on available resources. Those missions include Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Atmsphere and Volatile Evolution (a.k.a. MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on Mars, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the NASA contribution to the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

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