NASA announced an updated plan to continue the Solar System exploration mission with the New Horizons probe, accommodating the request of the current New Horizons team and the scientific community. The probe that visited Pluto will be able to continue the search for new bodies in the Kuiper belt. Operations will continue until the space probe exits the Belt in 2029.
Following a senior review and feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders, @NASA will continue the @NASANewHorizons mission focus on multidisciplinary science. Its extended operations will continue until the spacecraft exits the Kuiper Belt, expected in 2028-2029.— Dr. Nicky Fox (@NASAScienceAA) September 29, 2023
The original mission was in danger due to a budget cut, but thanks to several discussions carried out by scientists, engineers, and above all by Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons, NASA has granted a new opportunity to the probe. On the other hand, these budget problems will lead to repercussions on future missions, for example, the New Frontier program.
The original mission
New Horizons was launched in 2006, onboard ULA’s Atlas V, and today has abundant energy reserves to continue its mission around the Solar System. NASA’s decision comes with the compromise that the new extended mission will be co-managed with the heliophysics scientific division. Until a new object to visit is identified in the Kuiper belt, the probe will dedicate itself to observing the Sun, proceeding along its trajectory in an “energy-saving” mode, in order to have sufficient resources in case it is necessary to plan a new flyby.
By studying the composition of the belt, scientists hope to gain information about the conditions prevailing during the Solar System’s infancy thanks to the analysis of icy bodies, frozen in time, that could reveal essential information about the formation of planets and other celestial objects.
“The New Horizons mission has a unique position in our solar system to answer important questions about our heliosphere and provide extraordinary opportunities for multidisciplinary science for NASA and the scientific community. The agency decided that it was best to extend operations for New Horizons until the spacecraft exits the Kuiper Belt, which is expected in 2028 through 2029.”— Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington
Probe discoveries about Pluto
In 2015 the probe New Horizons embarked on a historic mission, becoming the first one to closely study Pluto and its moons. In 2019 it also reached the Kuiper Belt object Arrokot. Along its long journey, it also captured stunning images of Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, and Ganymede, traveling at a speed of 300,000 miles per year toward the limits of our solar system.
New Horizons revealed a really complex surface and atmosphere of Pluto. The images sent back to Earth showed vast plains, icy mountains, a lack of craters (it is thought that recent geological activity has been enough to smooth out the surface), canyons, and a complex moon structure. The variety of terrain composition was so surprising that scientists did not expect such geological diversity on a small icy body like Pluto. In addition, there are hints that it could have an internal water-ice ocean, raising questions about the potential habitability of microbes.
One of the most iconic discoveries was the large heart-shaped region on Pluto’s surface, officially named Tombaugh Regio but also known as the “Heart of Pluto” and it consists of a bright, flat, icy plain called Sputnik Planitia whose center is rich in carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and methane ice.
“We could not have explored a more fascinating or scientifically important planet at the edge of our solar system. The New Horizons team worked for 15 years to plan and execute this flyby and Pluto paid us back in spades!”— Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado