Now that the Pluto pictures have been such a success, many are wondering about how New Horizons will top that. The mission is the first to the outer solar system since Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. The spacecraft isn’t going to stop there, after all. And even though the data won’t be fully recorded for months, the team is already making more plans. They’ve already learned Pluto has cliffs, a polar ice cap (not ice from water, but methane and nitrogen ices), and frozen mountains.
The first stop after Pluto is going to be the Kuiper belt, the region beyond the known planets. Complications may arise because the stars from the Milky War will be closer to them (only in a relative sense, but this will make things tricky back on Earth). The ultimate goal for New Horizons here is to see how planets develop, something that is still largely unknown. This is still two years in the future; the estimated arrival time is some time in 2017. One of those objects will no doubt be the dwarf planet Eris, whose discovery began the debate about Pluto’s planethood. Eris isn’t the only target, of course. The smaller objects in the belt will show changes that Pluto went through long ago, and since those smaller objects may contain building blocks for the solar system, they are invaluable. It will also meet up with the Voyager probe, which is also still sending data to Earth. The New Horizons probe will go right past it, as the average speed it can maintain — 36 thousand miles per hour — is more than either Voyager can maintain. (As for why Voyager never visited Pluto itself: the position of Neptune when the probe was scheduled to arrive made it impossible unless Voyager flew directly through Neptune, thanks to the crossing orbits of both Neptune and Pluto. Understandably, no one wanted to risk it.)
While the appropriate plutonium-based engine will fuel the spacecraft far longer than the solar panels typically used for these missions, eventually it will run out some time in 2030 or so. By that point, however, contact with the probe would have already ceased. Until then, it will send data back to the New Horizons team. Since this is a virtually unknown area of space, the potential for discovery is enormous.
Anyone who is hungry for more New Horizons news should, as always, follow the official site for the mission.
(Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)