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NASA's New Horizons post-Pluto target is just a billion miles away

If a mission extension is approved, the New Horizons spacecraft will take a short jaunt to a mysterious icy object in the Kuiper Belt.

Artist's concept of New Horizons nearing Pluto. NASA

For humans, a billion miles is almost unfathomable. We complain when we have to drive 20 miles to get somewhere. For NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, a billion miles is a pleasant stroll, like visiting the in-laws in the next town over.

The New Horizons team is still riding high on a spectacular Pluto flyby on July 14 that resulted in a series of clear images of the dwarf planet. The intrepid craft is moving on through space and NASA has identified a possible next target. The entity of interest is known as a KBO (Kuiper Belt Object). This particular object is called 2014 MU69.

The KBO is small, estimated to be just 30 miles (about 48 kilometers) across. Compare that to Pluto at nearly 1,473 miles (about 2,370 kilometers) across. MU69 was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. NASA says it is "thought to represent a well preserved, deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago."

Astronaut John Grunsfeld, chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, says the move to the KBO would cost considerably less than the prime mission to Pluto "while still providing new and exciting science."

The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system that extends from beyond Neptune's orbit. It's full of icy objects, of which Pluto is the most famous. The KBO is located over a billion miles from Pluto, which sounds like a lot (and it is), but it's not as massive an undertaking as the over 3 billion miles (about 4.8 billion kilometers) New Horizons travelled to get to Pluto in the first place.

New Horizons is a NASCAR racer among spacecraft. It took off from Earth in 2006 and hit a speed of over 36,000 mph (about 58,000 km/h). That's how it managed to cover the long distance to Pluto in a relatively short amount of time.

NASA is currently evaluating the mission extension. If approved, then New Horizons will meet its new space friend in early 2019.