After the historic flyby of Pluto a couple of months ago, NASA’s New Horizons craft has another target – PT 1, a tiny rocky object in the Kuiper belt located more than 6 billion kilometers away.
Although Pluto and PT 1 are both located in the same region of our solar system’s outer reaches, their size is different. PT 1 is only 45 kilometers wide, while Pluto is more than 2,300 kilometers across.
PT 1 is one of the thousands of icy objects in the Kuiper Belt, but its size doesn’t qualify it to be called a dwarf planet like Pluto is.
New Horizons is slated to begin its journey toward its new target in late October. But it would not reach the tiny cosmic object before New Year’s Day 2019. If the mission is successful, the orbiter is expected to beam back detailed images and scientific data on a space body that was never surveyed so closely before.
John Spencer, an astrophysicist from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and investigator of New Horizons’ mission, believes that the 2019 flyby would provide scientists with a type of data that is impossible to obtain from Earth, just like Pluto’s flyby demonstrated.
Mr Spencer is also optimistic that the flyby of PT 1 may help astronomers solve some decades-long mysteries related to the objects in the Kuiper Belt also known as KBOs.
But the mission may have a major obstacle: lack of funding, since New Horizons is slated to permanently shut down engines on Oct. 1, 2016. NASA announced that it would apply for more funding in 2016.
“PT” in PT 1 stands for “potential target” but its scientific moniker is 2014 MU69. When New Horizons will reach it, NASA expects the tiny probe to provide scientists with more info on other potential dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt.
While this July’s flyby showed that Pluto is still geologically active and has some dynamic features on its surface such as melting glaciers, PT 1 is expected to be an icy celestial body, which had remained this way ever since its creation. Scientists believe that such tiny objects have the potential of morphing into dwarf planets on the long run.
New Horizons started its journey to Pluto nine years ago, but the idea of extending the mission only crossed scientists’ minds four years ago.
PT 1 was first detected last year by ESA/NASA’s Hubble space telescope along with four other cosmic bodies. Yet, PT 1 was elected candidate for an extended mission because of its proximity to Pluto. NASA explained that the relatively short distance between the two may allow New Horizons save some fuel for the flyby.
Image Source: Wikipedia