NASA has approved plans for the New Horizons spacecraft that provided humankind's first close-up of Pluto to continue on to an object deeper in the fringes of the solar system.
New Horizons is set to fly past an object called 2014 MU69 in an area known as the Kuiper Belt on Jan. 1, 2019.
The mission extension was expected, but the July 1 announcement secures plans that scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel have been considering since before the Pluto fly-by last July. The Hopkins lab manages the New Horizons mission.
"The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise," Jim Green, NASA Director of Planetary Science, said in a statement. "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."
It took New Horizons nearly a decade to reach Pluto even though it flew away from Earth faster than any craft before it, at about 36,000 mph. That means scientists' only option for close-up exploration is to make a flurry of observations as the spacecraft whizzes past an object.
2014 MU69 is about 18 miles across and is thought to be untouched since the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. That means New Horizons' observations could provide new lessons about the conditions surrounding that event.
When New Horizons passes, the object will be 43 times farther from the sun than Earth is, about a billion miles farther than Pluto is.