New Horizons visit to mysterious Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 approved

The first-ever spacecraft to get a close look at Pluto has been given the go-ahead to explore an even more mysterious object.

Dawn to remain at Ceres instead of heading to asteroid, NASA also announces

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. (Steve Gribben/Southwest Research Institute/Johns Hopkins University /NASA)

New Horizons, the first-ever spacecraft to get a close look at Pluto has been given the go-ahead to explore another object never before visited by a human space probe.

However, Dawn, the spacecraft orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres will stay put rather than exploring another asteroid.

NASA has officially extended the mission of the New Horizons spacecraft, the U.S. space agency announced Friday.

That will allow it to visit and study the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, a small, icy object that may help reveal how the solar system formed.

"We're excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn't even discovered when the spacecraft launched," said Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary sciences in a news release.

New Horizons, which launched in 2006 and completed its Pluto flyby last July, is expected to arrive at the 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. The ancient, 45-kilometre wide object is thought to be similar to the "building blocks" that formed our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Changing course

Discovered using the Hubble Telescope in 2014, it was chosen as the spacecraft's next destination in 2015 because it's close to New Horizons's existing flight path and a flyby doesn't require much additional fuel to visit. The spacecraft began changing course towards it last fall.

But New Horizons's mission and funding were originally set to end on Oct. 1, 2016, making it uncertain whether scientists would be able to collect and analyze any data when the spacecraft arrived at MU69. Now it seems they will get that chance.

NASA also announced Friday that the Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres since March 2015, will continue to do so rather than heading off to explore another main belt asteroid called Adeona. The space agency said monitoring Ceres as it gets closer to its closest approach to the sun, called perihelion, "has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona." Prior to Ceres, Dawn had visited another asteroid called Vesta.