New Horizons gets a new lease on life and a possible flyby mission
The future of NASA's New Horizons interstellar probe as it speeds out of the solar system, never to return, is a bit more secure after the space agency announced a new extended mission plan that includes another possible Kuiper Belt object flyby.
Launched on January 18, 2006 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base atop an Atlas V rocket, New Horizons flew into the history books on July 14, 2015 when it passed by the dwarf planet Pluto, sending back dramatic images of its eternally frozen surface.
On January 1, 2019, the robotic spacecraft flew by the Kuiper belt object 486958 Arrokoth. It's currently 5.2 billion miles (8.5 billion km) from Earth on a trajectory that will take it out of the solar system in the direction of the constellation of Sagittarius.
However, for the last year, the fate of New Horizons has been in question. The science team wanted a mission extension that included a mix of astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary science research, but NASA was more interested in restricting the work just to heliophysics, which is the study of how the Sun interacts with the boundary between the solar system and interplanetary space.
Or, to put it simply, more or less shutting down the spacecraft and restricting it to sending back instrument telemetry.
Now, under funding from NASA’s Planetary Science Division, New Horizons will not only collect heliophysics data, it will conserve its remaining propellants in anticipation of another Kuiper Belt flyby. Though no object has been detected that is within range of New Horizons, if one is found in the near future, the space agency will review mission feasibility against the available budget before making a decision.
"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," said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "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."