It took nearly 15 years for NASA’s New Horizons mission to reach the point where it is at today, around 50 times farther from the Sun than is Earth. From its unique observational perch, the spacecraft has been studying the frozen depths of the solar system to help piece together the origin story of the planets orbiting the Sun.
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As the New Horizons spacecraft continues its journey at the outer edge of the solar system, uncertainty lies ahead. NASA is looking to change the primary goal of New Horizons, refocusing the mission to study the Sun’s environment instead of observing objects in the doughnut-shaped ring known as the Kuiper Belt. This has made some people very unhappy.
“NASA spent almost a billion dollars to get this spacecraft to the Kuiper Belt,” Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, told Gizmodo during a phone interview. “You spend a billion dollars to get a spacecraft all the way across the solar system and then divert it from its primary objective.”
The science team behind the mission has expressed frustration at NASA’s proposal, arguing that the New Horizons spacecraft is functioning and delivering groundbreaking data from its unique position in the distant stretches of the solar system. New Horizons is the fifth spacecraft to reach this distance following Voyager 1 and 2, as well as their predecessors, Pioneer 10 and 11.
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But as Stern explained: “No spacecraft has ever explored the Kuiper Belt before and no spacecraft has plans yet to come again,” adding that “we know that if New Horizons is forced to quit exploring the Kuiper Belt, that will be the end of any Kuiper Belt exploration by spacecraft for decades because it takes so long to get out there.”
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The debate over the future of New Horizons began last year when the science team delivered a proposal to extend the mission for an additional three years. In January 2022, NASA put together a review panel to go over the proposal. The space agency decided to extend the mission for two years instead, and fund New Horizons as a planetary mission until 2024, while considering funding it as a heliophysics mission beginning in 2025.
Aside from exploring the Pluto system and Kuiper Belt objects like Arrokoth, which became the farthest solar system object to be visited by a spacecraft, New Horizons also studies the Sun and its surrounding environment. “The thing is, they’re not in competition,” Stern said. “We do heliophysics observations every single day…and there’s no reason to make it a battle between these two things, they coexist.” The mission team argues that New Horizons can continue being a planetary and heliophysics mission at the same time without it affecting the cost or trajectory of the spacecraft.
NASA, on the other hand, does not see the value in continuing the mission’s Kuiper Belt observations. “A notable primary conclusion of the Panel was that the proposed studies of Kuiper Belt Objects are unlikely to markedly improve knowledge because the spacecraft lacks resources for long term, high cadence observations for light curves, which are necessary for their proposed planetary science goals/objectives,” according to the review report.
New Horizons launched in early 2006, headed towards the outer regions of the solar system. The spacecraft was the first to visit Pluto in July 2015, conducting the farthest flyby in history. In 2019, New Horizons searched for its next flyby target, a primordial binary object that was later named Arrokoth (which is Native American for sky). The Kuiper Belt is filled with hundreds of millions of objects, of which New Horizons has so far explored 37.
“From its unique perch in the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons is making observations that can’t be made from anywhere else; even the stars look different from the spacecraft’s point of view,” NASA wrote in 2021.
According to Stern, the New Horizons team is currently looking for a second flyby object, and planning observations of Saturn and its moons (the spacecraft has previously explored Neptune and Uranus). Everything in the Kuiper Belt “was formed billions of years ago and is extremely well preserved,” Stern said. “It’s the best preserved part of the solar system in terms of telling us about the origin of the planets and the original days of the solar system, so scientifically it’s a goldmine.”
Stern started working on the New Horizons mission more than 20 years ago when it was just an idea. Today, he fears that the mission team would be disbanded if NASA’s decision goes into effect. The team, as well as other members of the planetary science community, has been lobbying to try and get NASA to reverse its decision. Aside from planetary scientists, a group of heliophysicists has also drafted an open letter highlighting how New Horizons can continue to be a “powerful cross-divisional tool.”
“New Horizons has enabled uninterrupted heliophysics measurements throughout the heliosphere for over a decade, alongside its groundbreaking Kuiper Belt and other planetary observations,” the letter, which was sent out on Monday, read. The conduct of the mission’s heliophysics observations is both synoptic and in no way in competition with its planetary science observations of the Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt Objects.”
The New Horizons team is also in conversations with NASA, but that has “not been effective,” according to Stern. “Our team believes that it’s very short sighted and premature to quit exploring the Kuiper Belt,” Stern said. “It took us more than a decade to fly across the solar system to be in the Kuiper Belt, and we think it’s unwise and a bad use of NASA money to move the mission away from Kuiper Belt exploration.”
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