New Horizons finishes historic Kuiper Belt maneuver
NASA'sNew Horizons spacecraft has achieved a great deal, recently sending home awealth of information on Pluto, including stunning close up imageryand and a breathtaking view of its crescent. Now, the probe hascompleted the last of four burns that have put it on a path to anuncertain future.
Theprobe's most recent burn was the last of four carefully-plannedpropulsive maneuvers. It was executed by the spacecraft'shydrazine-fueled thrusters at 1:15pm EST on Wednesday November 4,taking some 20 minutes to complete. Mission controllers at the JohnHopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) received datafrom the craft a little over five hours after the burn, withindications that everything went according to plan.
Theywere some record setting burns for the probe. Not only were they thelongest in the history of the mission, but they were also executed inquicker succession than previous maneuvers.
So,where is New Horizons heading now? Well, those burns didn'tadjust the speed of the probe, but instead pushed it sideways, so asto position it for rendevous with the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) – a planetoid known as 2014 MU69.
Despitepreparing for the next step of its mission, the future of NewHorizons is far from certain. Early next year the team will submit aproposal for continuation of the endeavour. If NASA ordains tocontinue the mission, then the plan is to fly the spacecraftcloser to MU69 than its closest pass of Pluto, which clocked in ataround 7,750 miles (12,500 km).
Thespacecraft's systems remain healthy, and it's now some 84 millionmiles (135 million km) past Pluto, 3.2 billion miles (5.1billion km) from Earth, and 895 million miles (1.44 billionkm) from MU69. Whether or not the mission continues, itslatest maneuvers mark yet another key moment in the life of anextraordinary probe.
"Thisis another milestone in the life of an already successful missionthat's returning exciting new data every day," says programscientist Curt Neiber. "These course adjustments preserve theoption of studying an even more distant object in the future, as NewHorizons continues its remarkable journey."