Tue Apr 4, 2017 06:06PM
An artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. (Photo by NASA)
An artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft. (Photo by NASA)

The New Horizons spacecraft has currently traveled half the distance between the dwarf planet, Pluto, and its next flyby target, which is an extremely smaller object circling in the Solar System's twilight zone, called the Kuiper Belt, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says.

The New Horizons, dashing out of our solar system at about 32,000 miles per hour, was on Tuesday 486.19 million miles beyond Pluto and the same distance from 2014 MU69, a tiny Kuiper Belt object (KBO), which is barely one percent of the dwarf planet’s size, NASA announced in a statement.

The Kuiper Belt, which contains numerous icy comets, asteroids, and other small bodies, is a circumstellar region located beyond the planets extending from the orbit of Neptune, the farthest planet from the Sun, to approximately 50 AU from it. An AU, which stands for astronomical unit, is by definition a unit of length roughly the average distance from Earth to the Sun, which is equal to some 93 million miles.

The spacecraft is scheduled to make a flyby of the MU69 on New Year’s Day 2019, added the US space organization.

“It’s fantastic to have completed half the journey to our next flyby; that flyby will set the record for the most distant world ever explored in the history of civilization,” said Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The nuclear-powered New Horizons made history after it managed to make its flyby of Pluto at 1149 GMT on July 14, 2015, following a decade-long journey.

A view of Pluto in near-true color, imaged by the New Horizons spacecraft. (Photo by NASA)

Time to sleep

NASA also announced that its spacecraft would go into a 157-day period of hibernation later this week after being “awake” for the past two and a half years.

“The January 2019 MU69 flyby is the next big event for us…,” but “in addition to MU69, we plan to study more than two-dozen other KBOs in the distance and measure the charged particle and dust environment all the way across the Kuiper Belt,” said Hal Weaver, the New Horizons project scientist in Laurel, Maryland.

The spacecraft, the farthest man-made object from the Earth after Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, is currently 3.5 billion miles from our cosmic home. At that distance, it takes about five hours and 20 minutes for radio signals sent from the operations team to reach the New Horizons.