The Future of New Horizons: Beyond Pluto

With the historic fly-by of Pluto last month, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft gave us an up-close look at the former 9th planet, showing that it is a dynamic world with icy plains, tall mountains, and an atmosphere.  But now that New Horizons has passed by Pluto, it has the infinite cosmic horizon in its stead.  So what’s next for the $700 Million spacecraft? Its battery will keep it going for a few more decades, and it will likely pass beyond the edge of the solar system, in the stead of the Voyager crafts.  What else is ahead?

An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The good news is that, as vast and empty as space is, there are a lot of small islands of rock.  Most are icy bodies several kilometres across, most akin to comets than planets.  But understanding the large population of what we call Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), gives us insights into the abundance of raw materials that were present 4.5 Billion years ago during the formation of the solar system.  Understanding what was there can help us understand what life needs to develop, and what life on Earth used during its 3 Billion years of evolution.

The most promising of the icy rocks that happen to pass close to the trajectory of New Horizons is called 2014 MU69, an icy rock suspected to be about 50 kilometres wide.  There were actually three candidate objects for New Horizons to target, but 2014 MU69 was chosen because there is a 100% chance of reaching it with the fuel that the spacecraft has left after the Pluto flyby.

This chart shows the path of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward its next potential target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, also known as PT1. Other dwarf planets are indicated on the chart as well. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The flyby won’t take place for another four years, in 2019, but it also depends on a mission extension that the New Horizons team will have to apply for next year.  Presuming all goes well we should get an up close view of a KBO that we have never seen before.  In the meantime, New Horizons continues to send back data from the Pluto flyby, and once analysed, we should see some new and interesting science yet to come from Pluto.

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