New Horizons Space Probe continues its journey

What the future has in store for us beyond Earth


A photo of Pluto and Charon, which is Pluto’s largest moon, taken by New Horizons

Launched almost 13 years ago on January 19, 2006, NASA’s New Horizons has been instrumental in the exploration of space beyond earth. But the team of this landmark probe, which has traveled a total distance of over 4 billion miles, will soon face difficult decisions on where to go next.

New Horizons is classified as an interplanetary space probe and was launched in 2006 under the New Frontiers program which, according to NASA, is aimed to, “examine the ‘big picture’ of solar system exploration today – what it is, how it fits into other scientific endeavors, and why it is a compelling goal.” With New Horizons, NASA was hoping to learn more about the planets beyond Earth and, more recently, “the solar system’s recently-discovered ‘third zone’, the region beyond the giant planets called the Kuiper Belt.” This ‘belt’ would provide innumerable intelligence on how our solar system was created, as the primitive materials have been well-preserved far from the heat of the sun. It also provides a new front for studying space entities like comets and small planets.

In July of 2015, New Horizons became the first mission to reach Pluto and was able to send back key data that allowed scientists and engineers to better understand the dwarf planet. One of these discoveries, according to the website, is that Pluto, which has a long history of being between a planet and a dwarf planet, should actually be considered a planet. “New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern has repeatedly said he is not in favor of the decision [to remove Pluto’s planetary status] – especially after the flyby revealed a more complex formation history than initially anticipated.” These findings have even lead to planetary scientists proposing to restore Pluto’s planetary status, but they have had little success.

Just a few weeks ago, New Horizons ventured deep in the Kuiper Belt and passed Ultima Thule, an unknown space object that astronomers discovered in late 2014. New Horizons was able to take photos and readings, but most of the data will not be able to reach NASA for a while. According to Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), because Ultima Thule is over 4 billion miles away, it will take 20 months for all of the high-definition pictures and data, roughly 7 gigabytes, to reach Earth. Until then, NASA and APL can start plotting New Horizons’ next destination.

But this next journey could be the last for New Horizons. Even though APL reports that, “New Horizons and its payload sensors are healthy and operating perfectly,” and that, “the spacecraft has enough power and fuel to operate into the mid-2030s,” there is always room for error. Especially as the spacecraft ages and travels further from Earth, scientists need to be extremely careful to turn New Horizons at the perfect angle to Earth or they will lose it forever. They also need to be wary of space objects and the fact that, with the increasing time difference, it is harder to plot courses for the spacecraft. But, despite the challenges, whatever is gained from the extended mission beyond the Kuiper belt could be instrumental to our understanding of the universe.