Pluto probe gets new assignment

Story highlights

  • New target picked for probe that made Pluto flyby
  • New Horizons spacecraft may visit a distant space rock
  • NASA still has to OK funding

(CNN)Where do you go after Pluto? To PT1 of course!

NASA has picked the next target for New Horizons, the piano-sized spacecraft that took those amazing photos of Pluto in July when it became the first probe to fly by.
Mission scientists want New Horizons to chase down and study a small object known as known as 2014 MU69 and nicknamed "PT1" for "Potential Target 1."
    PT1 orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto in a rocky part of space known as the Kuiper Belt. Since it's far away from the sun's heat, it's like a giant frozen sample of the early solar system.
    New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern says PT1 is a great choice because it takes less fuel to reach than other possible targets and that will leave "more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen."
    But before the probe starts its new mission, the scientists running the mission will have to convince NASA to fork over more money. The team is expected to send in a budget proposal in 2016.
    New Horizons is now about 33.7 million miles (54.2 million km) beyond Pluto. It's still sending back data gathered during the encounter, but the probe's website says it's "on a bit of a post-flyby break, currently sending back lower data-rate information collected by the energetic particle, solar wind and space dust instruments. It will resume sending flyby images and other data in early September."
    If it gets the green light for the extended mission, New Horizons could reach PT1 by January 1, 2019. Scientists estimate PT1 is about 28 miles (about 45 kilometers) across. They also think it's 10 times larger and 1,000 times more massive than a typical comet.
    The longer mission would not be much of a challenge for New Horizons. It was designed to go far beyond Pluto. It has extra hydrazine fuel on board and its scientific instruments, communications and power system were built to keep working for many years.