New Horizons performs course correction on path toward second target
After spending six days in a special mode to capture distant photographs of six Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), the New Horizons probe underwent a minor course correction engine burn sending it toward its second flyby target, KBO 2014 MU69.
The course adjustment was based on improved data from measurements taken by both the spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope refining the KBO’s orbit in relation to New Horizons’ current position.
This was the first course correction for the spacecraft since four maneuvers in the fall of 2015 adjusted its course toward MU69, which it will fly by on Jan. 1, 2019.
Computer commands uploaded to New Horizons directed the firing of its thrusters for 44 seconds, altering the probe’s velocity by approximately 1.4 feet (44 centimeters) per second or slightly under 1 mph (1.6 km/h).
“One mile per hour might not sound like much, but over the next 23 months, as we approach MU69, that maneuver will add up to an aim point refinement of almost 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers),” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
Radio signals confirming the maneuver’s success, traveling more than 3.5 billion miles (5.6 billion kilometers) from the spacecraft back to NASA’s Deep Space Network stations in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia, took more than five hours to reach Earth, traveling at the speed of light.
New Horizons spent last week in “three-axis stabilized mode” – a position that enabled it to make telescopic observations of several distant large KBOs. Data collected during this time will reveal these KBOs’ shapes, surface properties, and moons.
Such detailed observations cannot be conducted from Earth, which is why mission scientists are taking advantage of the spacecraft’s position in the Kuiper Belt to collect this data.
The data and images captured will be returned to Earth within the next few weeks.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.