New Horizons finishes historic Kuiper Belt maneuver

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NASA's spacecraft has executed the last of four burns that put it on a course to a planetoid far beyond Pluto(Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has achieved a great deal, recently sending home a wealth of information on Pluto, including stunning close up imagery and and a breathtaking view of its crescent. Now, the probe has completed the last of four burns that have put it on a path to an uncertain future.

The probe's most recent burn was the last of four carefully-planned propulsive maneuvers. It was executed by the spacecraft's hydrazine-fueled thrusters at 1:15pm EST on Wednesday November 4, taking some 20 minutes to complete. Mission controllers at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) received data from the craft a little over five hours after the burn, with indications that everything went according to plan.

They were some record setting burns for the probe. Not only were they the longest in the history of the mission, but they were also executed in quicker succession than previous maneuvers.

So, where is New Horizons heading now? Well, those burns didn't adjust the speed of the probe, but instead pushed it sideways, so as to position it for rendevous with the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) – a planetoid known as 2014 MU69.

Despite preparing for the next step of its mission, the future of New Horizons is far from certain. Early next year the team will submit a proposal for continuation of the endeavour. If NASA ordains to continue the mission, then the plan is to fly the spacecraft closer to MU69 than its closest pass of Pluto, which clocked in at around 7,750 miles (12,500 km).

The spacecraft's systems remain healthy, and it's now some 84 million miles (135 million km) past Pluto, 3.2 billion miles (5.1 billion km) from Earth, and 895 million miles (1.44 billion km) from MU69. Whether or not the mission continues, its latest maneuvers mark yet another key moment in the life of an extraordinary probe.

"This is another milestone in the life of an already successful mission that's returning exciting new data every day," says program scientist Curt Neiber. "These course adjustments preserve the option of studying an even more distant object in the future, as New Horizons continues its remarkable journey."

Source: NASA

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