Artist's illustration of New Horizons near a Kuiper Belt object. Illustration: JHUAPL/SwRI
As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues to speed through the solar system after its historic rendezvous with Pluto and Ultima Thule, scientists on Earth are thinking up ways to do even more with the mission.
Why it matters: New Horizons transformed our understanding of the solar system by revealing ice mountains on Pluto's surface and beaming back photos of Ultima Thule, a leftover from the dawn of the solar system.
- If the spacecraft gets a second extended mission, it's possible it could again reveal another never-before-seen world from close range.
- "The spacecraft is healthy and has plenty of power to go on exploring deeper and deeper into the Kuiper Belt and even beyond it," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Axios.
Driving the news: New Horizons scientists just published their first study detailing the Ultima Thule encounter, and the team is planning to ask NASA for another extended mission for the spacecraft next year.
Details: While the Hubble Space Telescope discovered Ultima Thule, the target for the spacecraft's current extended mission, the team will likely need to rely on New Horizons' onboard cameras to find the next destination, Stern said.
- They hope to find and fly by another object in Ultima Thule's region of space, known as the Kuiper Belt, in the early to mid-2020s.
- New Horizons is expected to have enough juice to function through the mid-to-late 2030s.
- By that point, it's possible that the spacecraft will be flying in interstellar space.