The ongoing saga of the New Horizons mission—will it get truncated and its science team disbanded?—may have some resolution. Dr. Nicky Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters announced last Friday that mission operations will continue until at least the end of the decade.
“Following a senior review and feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders, NASA will continue the New Horizons mission focus on multidisciplinary science,” she announced in social media and a press release. “Its extended operations will continue until the spacecraft exits the Kuiper Belt, expected in 2028-2029.”
Fox did not provide further specifics. The announcement seems to still be stressing heliophysics while acknowledging planetary science in the Kuiper Belt under the “multidisciplinary” label. Presumably, the extension of mission operations also means the current science team remains in place. However, that wasn’t mentioned specifically.
New Horizons Pioneered Kuiper Belt Exploration
New Horizons launched in 2006 on a trajectory to fly past and study the Pluto system in 2015. It then flew past Kuiper Belt Object Arrokoth in 2019 before continuing out through the Kuiper Belt. Throughout its mission, the spacecraft has studied other Solar System bodies. It has done dust measurements, gathered information about other smaller KBOs, and gathered heliophysical data. And, team members are searching for another flyby target.
A chart showing the relative position of New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt compared to other spacecraft. Courtesy New Horizons mission.
The Kuiper Belt has been a largely unexplored part of the Solar System. It holds a number of icy bodies and dwarf planets such as Pluto, Eris, Makemake, and others. It’s the source of so-called “short-period” comets, which have orbital periods less than 200 years long. Studying Kuiper Belt bodies in detail provides insight into a treasury of materials dating to the Solar System’s origin. Coupled with the great distances involved, the Kuiper Belt represents one of the last frontiers to explore.
NASA’s Proposed Changes for New Horizons
Mission scientists expected to continue the New Horizons explorations through the late 2020s. However, earlier this year, an unusual proposal floated out from NASA. It suggested that the mission’s focus shift entirely to heliophysics, omitting much (if not all) planetary science. In addition, the current mission team faced replacement by other unnamed scientists who would use the spacecraft. That engendered a huge outcry from the mission and members of the planetary science community.
A collective of 25 prominent planetary scientists, including Planetary Society board chair Jim Bell, Lori Garver (past Deputy Administrator of NASA), Jim Green (Past Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division), Candice Hansen-Koharcheck (Past chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences and Past Chair of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group), author Homer Hickham, Wesley T. Huntress (Past Director of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Group), astrophysicist Sir Brian May, Melissa McGrath (past NASA official and AAS Chair of DPS), and many others signed on to a letter of protest about the mission’s proposed truncation. In addition to articles here and elsewhere, the National Space Society began a petition aimed at getting national (and international) attention focused on the matter. Thousands of people weighed in to signal their support.
Saving New Horizons’s Important Science
All this activity on behalf of the mission definitely focused attention on NASA’s proposal. Implementing the proposal would have affected important science. According to Principal Investigator Alan Stern, New Horizons is the only
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