NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft Is Prepping for an Extended Mission

Decades in the making, this small spacecraft is opening up the outer Solar System.

Amy Thompson

Amy Thompson

Image: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

Pluto is just the beginning for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. The intrepid explorer has completed its primary mission, and is on course for its next target: 2014 MU69. That is, if NASA approves it.

Last summer, the entire world fell in love with Pluto as we saw the first close-up views of this icy world. Some speculated on what we would see—would Pluto be a cold, lifeless hunk of rock and ice? As it turns out, Pluto is way more interesting.

Pluto is located in the mysterious Kuiper Belt, a region first predicted in the early 1950's. It wasn't until decades later, in 1992, that scientists spied their first Kuiper Belt Object or KBO. The region, located just beyond Neptune, is made up of leftover bits from the formation of the Solar System. These primordial, icy remnants are over 4.6 billion years old and remain pristine—meaning they are virtually untouched.

New Horizons gave us our first taste of the science we can expect from this virtually unexplored region. As such, the Kuiper Belt is a scientific treasure trove. By unlocking its secrets, scientists will be able to better understand the formation and evolution not only of our Solar System but also comets, and even the solar nebula (the swirling cloud of gas and dust that spawned our Sun).

According to the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission Alan Stern, not exploring the Kuiper Belt would be akin to not including the Pacific Ocean on a map. After seeing how geologically diverse the terrain is on Pluto, Stern says that the exploration of the Kuiper Belt would revolutionize our knowledge of the Solar System.

"We have enough fuel left to power the spacecraft for the next 20 years."

"It took us nine-and-a-half years and over 3 billion miles to get to our target—Not just Pluto. The Kuiper Belt," Stern explained. "New Horizons will be busy over the coming years making multiple KBO observations. So that by the end of the process, we will have this fantastic data set. I don't know of any other way over the next several years, except through New Horizons, that we can develop a data set like that."

Naturally, the team is anxious to explore this pristine region. The New Horizons team officially submitted an extended-mission proposal which Stern refers to as the Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM). NASA is currently evaluating the proposal and we should know the fate of New Horizons by this summer.

Why should we care about an extended mission? In the 1970s and 1980s the twin Voyager spacecrafts opened up our eyes to the wonders of the Solar System. Through their eyes, we saw the wonders of what we thought was the outer Solar System. Not since Voyager 2 gave us our first look at Neptune, have we seen a world up close for the first time. That is, until New Horizons. Now, we have the opportunity to do it again with another KBO dubbed 2014 MU69.

Stern refers to the proposed flyby of MU69 as a landmark event. Not only would it shatter deep space exploration distance records, but the scientific bounty from this flyby would be impressive. In addition, the mission proposal would observe at least 20 different KBOs on the way to MU69, gathering information on their shapes, sizes, and surface properties—something that current telescopes cannot do.

The probe will also study the effects of the Sun in the outer Solar System, something New Horizons began during the Pluto flyby, as well as search for rings around various KBOs.

The spacecraft is healthy and has enough fuel left to complete an extended mission, which would explore more than 20 different KBOs. "We have enough fuel left to power the spacecraft for the next 20 years," says Stern.

The team remains optimistic about the fate of its proposal and if approved, will begin planning the flyby and future KEM science observations this fall. The team has already ensured that New Horizons is en route to its next destination, which it will reach on January 1, 2019.

If the extended mission is not approved, the team will have to turn off New Horizons in December as they don't have to funding to keep it going.