New Horizons gets green light to explore beyond Pluto

6 Jul 2016

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. Image via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

Having sent back a wealth of information about our solar system’s best-known dwarf planet, the New Horizons spacecraft will continue onwards, having now gotten the green light to explore the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt.

Almost exactly a year ago today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto after a nine-year journey to take thousands of images and scientific readings of the dwarf planet’s surface, giving us a first look at something we had, up to that point, only been able to theorise about.

Despite it being a heralded success, the fact it was only engaged in a flyby – unlike the recent arrival of Juno in Jupiter’s orbit – meant it was feared that funding issues back here on Earth would mean New Horizons was doomed to drift endlessly into space.

Future Human

Now, however, NASA has confirmed that the mission will continue for years to come, having received the green light to fly onward to an object deeper in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, known as 2014 MU69.

The Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt is the region on the outskirts of our solar system that contains many of the ancient asteroids that were leftover during the formation of our solar system.

Other spacecraft get greenlight, too

Expected to reach 2014 MU69 on 1 January 2019, New Horizons joins a number of other spacecraft in our solar system that have also received extensions to their missions.

One such extension includes the Dawn spacecraft, which has now been instructed to remain at the dwarf planet Ceres, rather than changing course to the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Similarly, many of the Mars-based craft – such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and both the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers – will continue for at least the next two years, as well as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and, even today, the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, Jim Green. “We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic