NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto seven years ago, but the probe’s work is far from over.
new Horizons is still operational in extended mission mode, delving deeper and deeper into the Kuiper Belt to investigate ancient, icy mini-worlds in this vast region beyond Neptune’s orbit.
New Horizons launched in January 2006 and conducted a recognition study Pluto and its moons in the summer of 2015, culminating in a conclusion Flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015. This encounter showed that Pluto is an incredibly diverse world, complete with towering water icebergs and vast plains of exotic nitrogen ice.
But the nuclear-powered probe kept its eyes peeled even after Pluto was in the rearview mirror.
Destination Pluto: NASA’s New Horizons mission in pictures
New Horizons next flew from Arrokotha small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), on 1/1/2019. Arrokoth discovered by the New Horizons science team in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescopeis the most distant and primitive object ever explored by a spacecraft at close range.
And there could be another flyby in the future of New Horizons as well.
At a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) in June, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado reported that both the spacecraft and its science payload are fully intact. The probe’s lifetime is currently limited only by its nuclear fuel supply, which is likely enough to keep New Horizons flying until 2040.
And NASA recently granted another mission extension for New Horizons that will keep the spacecraft running through 2025.
“I am very excited about this second expanded mission,” Stern told Space.com. NASA and the New Horizons team are discussing fiscal year 2025 budget figures, he added.
main action elements
The New Horizons agenda now has three main action items approved by NASA. One involves looking for another flyby target “and also for other KBOs that we can study, not up close but far away,” Stern said.
Additionally, New Horizons is still transmitting the final bytes of data collected during the 2019 Arrokoth flyby.
“We were delayed in doing this, mainly because the Deep Space Network had some upgrades. They took down antennas and one was down for a year,” Stern said. “We have about 90% of it Arrokoth flying through [data] on site, but we want everything and that takes time. So this is a significant activity.”
Then there’s the heart of New Horizons’ second expanded mission – a multitude of observations in different areas.
“While we fly over them Kuiper belt‘ Stern added, ‘we will be conducting a very interdisciplinary mission across all space sciences – astrophysics, planetary sciences and heliophysics. We’re going to use this spaceship to do things that really can’t be done unless you have a spaceship out there. Nothing like this has really happened before… We’re doing all three different space sciences by making New Horizons an observatory for all three purposes.”
In heliophysics, for example, the spacecraft will examine “pickup ions”. These charged particles dominate the pressure of the outer heliosphere — the vast bubble of magnetic fields and particles that the Sun blows around it — and control where the boundary with the interstellar medium is.
In astrophysics, New Horizons will study the cosmic optical and ultraviolet background, and get a nice look beyond the obscuring dust and other stray light sources of the Solar System’s inner regions. New Horizons has already made the most sensitive measurements of these backgrounds yet, with “profound implications for cosmology,” Stern noted.
In the planetary science column, the probe is said to study Uranus and Uranus Neptune of unique “high phase angle” geometries that shed light on the important energy balances of these planets.
“There’s never been anything truly deeply interdisciplinary like what New Horizons is going to be in an expanded mission over the next three years,” Stern said.
Related: NASA’s New Horizons Pluto spacecraft is still exploring, 50 AU from the Sun
The New Horizons team also plans to buy time at ground-based telescopes like Keck and Subaru to find new KBOs to study as the probe passes them, “or if you’re lucky and pass one that’s close.” enough that we could get to, we’ll have a close flyby,” Stern said.
The New Horizons team uses machine learning to search for new KBOs with such scopes. “It turns out to be faster, more accurate and more reliable,” Stern said. Compared to human detective work, machine learning is “better and finds more KBOs. So this is a breakthrough and saves us a lot of work and makes a better product.”
Ground-based observations have shown that there are different classes of KBOs that have different colors and compositions. “So we know there’s a lot of heterogeneity among KBOs,” Stern said. “If we had a second KBO flyby, I wouldn’t expect that at all. It would be a completely different place than Arrokoth.”
KBOs teach scientists about planetesimals, the building blocks of planets thought to exist in protoplanetary disks and debris disks.
The Arrokoth-KBO flyby yielded a groundbreaking result, Stern said: that at least some planetesimals formed very gently, in a process dubbed the local cloud collapse phenomenon. The New Horizons team would like to study another KBO up close to see if its formation and evolution match observations at Arrokoth.
“We’re turning this into a machine that benefits astrophysics and heliophysics while benefiting planetary science,” Stern said of New Horizons and its second expanded mission. “They are equal partners in science, and this is a first for a planetary science mission.”
Leonard David is the author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has covered the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) gold we Facebook (opens in new tab).
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