After a successful flyby of Pluto in July, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be redirected to visit a small, icy body known as 2014 MU69, located nearly a billion miles farther into the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune.
PHOTOS: NASA's Mission to Pluto by the Numbers
Funding for the extended mission has not yet been approved, but the New Horizons team needs to dispatch commands for the spacecraft to fire its steering engines in October for the new flyby, which would occur on Jan. 1, 2019.
After turning to the Hubble Space Telescope to find potential targets within the spacecraft's range, scientists mulled whether to aim for the 30-mile wide MU69, or a second, somewhat larger Kuiper Belt object.
MU69 requires less fuel to reach and the flyby would occur about three months sooner than the other candidate, which, because it is larger, was considered more desirable from a scientific perspective.
ANALYSIS: New Horizons is Seeing Signs of Kuiper Belt ‘Blood Spatter'
But fuel savings by targeting MU69 will leave extra reserves for unexpected steering maneuvers. Likewise, the earlier flyby is a hedge against possible equipment failure.
New Horizons soared past Pluto and its entourage of moons on July 14, becoming the first spacecraft to visit an object in the Kuiper Belt, a region believed to hold pristine bodies left over from the solar system's formation some 4.6 billion years ago.
Pluto and its large moon Charon, however, turned out to have much more activity on, and possibly beneath, their surfaces than previously suspected.
NEWS: After Pluto, Where Will NASA's New Horizons Go?
Scientists theorize that small bodies like MU69 were the building blocks for Pluto, once considered the solar system's ninth planet and now known as a "dwarf planet." Pluto is the largest known object in the Kuiper Belt.
Only a tiny fraction of the data collected during New Horizons' flyby has been relayed back to Earth. The real flow of pictures and scientific measurements begins in mid-September.