New ‘KEM’ proposal would extend New Horizons post-Pluto mission to 2021

If approved by NASA, the KEM proposal will allow New Horizons to continue its study of the outer fringes of the Solar System until 2021, including a flyby of 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
If approved by NASA, the KEM proposal will allow New Horizons to continue its study of the outer fringes of the Solar System until 2021, including a flyby of 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The New Horizons mission has revolutionized our understanding of Pluto and its moons, after conducting the first-ever flyby last summer. These mysterious worlds were finally seen up close, and this new view created as many, if not more, new questions as it answered old ones. While the flyby may be long over now, the spacecraft itself is still in excellent health and continues to plunge deeper into the Kuiper Belt at the outer fringes of the Solar System. Scientists have been eager for New Horizons to continue exploring this region farther out past Pluto, and now a proposal has been formally submitted to NASA to do just that. This extended mission will conduct a flyby of at least one more Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and last until 2021.

Read MoreNew ‘KEM’ proposal would extend New Horizons post-Pluto mission to 2021

Is ‘Planet 9’ really a second massive Kuiper Belt?

The Kuiper Belt is a massive collection of dwarf planet and asteroid-sized worlds orbiting far past Neptune. Is the hypothetical Planet 9 really a second such belt? Image Credit: T. Pyle (SSC)/JPL-Caltech/NASA
The Kuiper Belt is a massive collection of dwarf planet and asteroid-sized worlds orbiting far past Neptune. Is the hypothetical Planet 9 really a second such belt? Image Credit: T. Pyle (SSC)/JPL-Caltech/NASA

The announcement of a possible large ninth planet in our Solar System way beyond Neptune last month caused a lot of excitement, needless to say. If confirmed, it may be similar to “super-Earth” type exoplanets which have been found to be plentiful around other stars, although none, that we knew of, around ours. At this point, however, it is still a well-presented theory. Now, there’s another possibility which has been offered to explain the weird orbits of some of the small Kuiper Belt objects – not a large planet, but rather a second Kuiper Belt consisting of many smaller objects instead.

Read MoreIs ‘Planet 9’ really a second massive Kuiper Belt?

New Horizons conducts final course correction for New Year’s Day flyby of next KBO in 2019

New Horizons has completed the four course corrections needed to send it on its way to its next target in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons has completed the four course corrections needed to send it on its way to its next target in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

After having completed a wildly successful flyby of Pluto and its moons, the New Horizons spacecraft was given a new target, much farther out in the Kuiper Belt, a smaller space rock called 2014 MU69. Starting on Oct. 22, New Horizons was instructed to perform the first of four targeting maneuvers, which would be needed to guide the spacecraft toward its destination. Now, the fourth maneuver has been successfully completed, putting New Horizons firmly on the path for a January 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69.

Read MoreNew Horizons conducts final course correction for New Year’s Day flyby of next KBO in 2019

New Horizons changes course for flyby of first post-Pluto destination on New Year’s Day 2019

New Horizons has sped past the Pluto system and is now on its way to its next target in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons has sped past the Pluto system and is now on its way to its next target in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

After having completed its successful encounter with Pluto and its moons last July, the New Horizons spacecraft is now setting its sights on its next target much farther out in the Kuiper Belt: a tiny rocky world called 2014 MU69, which is less than 30 miles in diameter and orbits nearly 1 billion miles past Pluto, in the far outer reaches of the Solar System.

Read MoreNew Horizons changes course for flyby of first post-Pluto destination on New Year’s Day 2019

A whole new world: Pluto discoveries published in new ‘Science’ research paper

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It has been three months since the historic close flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, and new discoveries have been coming in quickly about this previously little-known world. The first paper detailing these results so far, “The Pluto System: Initial Results from its Exploration by New Horizons,” has now been published in Science. New Horizons has revealed Pluto and its moons to be more complex and geologically active than ever thought.

Read MoreA whole new world: Pluto discoveries published in new ‘Science’ research paper

Pluto in all its glory: stunning new panorama from New Horizons shows mountains, glaciers and hazes

Stunning new panorama of Pluto backlit by the Sun, showing the icy plains, rugged mountains, and hazes in the atmosphere. The image was taken only 15 minutes after closest approach by New Horizons. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Stunning new panorama of Pluto backlit by the Sun, showing the icy plains, rugged mountains, and hazes in the atmosphere. The image was taken only 15 minutes after closest approach by New Horizons. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

New images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft were released last Thursday… and they are spectacular. The views across Pluto’s icy mountains and plains are haunting and almost surreal, yet familiar looking at the same time. What was once only a tiny pinpoint of light in the night sky is now a complex and fascinating world, in some ways similar to our own, seen close-up for the first time ever.

Read MorePluto in all its glory: stunning new panorama from New Horizons shows mountains, glaciers and hazes

Here it comes! massive downlink of Pluto data starts with spectacular new images

Perspective view of Pluto, composed of the latest high-resolution images. The entire expanse of terrain seen in the image is 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) across. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Perspective view of Pluto, composed of the latest high-resolution images. The entire expanse of terrain seen in the image is 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) across. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

After a lull of several weeks, the downlinking of new data from the New Horizons spacecraft has begun, including stunning new images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, as well as a treasure trove of other scientific data. There is so much to come that it will take about one year to downlink everything from the spacecraft and send back to Earth. Those first amazing images of Pluto and its moons were only the beginning.

Read MoreHere it comes! massive downlink of Pluto data starts with spectacular new images