NASA confirmed today that the New Horizons deep-space probe has successfully carried out the first of four course corrections designed to culminate in a rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt object one billion miles beyond Pluto in 2019. On Thursday at about 1:50 pm EDT, the unmanned spacecraft fired two of its hydrazine thrusters for around 16 minutes to alter its trajectory by approximately 10 meters per second (22 mph, 36 km/h).
The maneuver was confirmed when mission control at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, received data from New Horizons via the Deep Space Network at about 8:30 pm EDT. Because the spacecraft is 74 million miles (119 million km) beyond Pluto and 3.16 billion miles (5.08 billion km) from Earth, a radio signal takes 4.5 hours to reach it, so NASA previously sent instructions to the probe, which it carried out autonomously at the required moment.
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The change of course is intended to send New Horizons on a potential flyby of 2014 MU69 – a planetoid about a billion miles from Pluto. If NASA approves the extended mission, the spacecraft will pass the planetoid on January 1, 2019. This would be the first object the probe has encountered since its historic Pluto flyby on July 14.
NASA says that the agency will formally request approval early next year. In anticipation, New Horizons will be instructed to carry out three more engine burns on October 25, 28, and November 4 to alter its velocity by a total of about 57 meters per second (127 mph, 205 km/h).