To learn about the farthest reaches of our solar system, NASA designed the New Horizons mission.
The goal for the project is to send New Horizons out to do a flyby with the dwarf planet Pluto and then head deeper into the Kuiper Belt, which is believed to be the remnants of the formation of our solar system.
This kind of space travel requires a lot of patience as New Horizons isn’t expected to reach its destination for 13-14 years.
On January 19, 2006, New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and was listed as the fastest spacecraft to have even launched to that date.
To give New Horizons a gravity boost, it swung by Jupiter in 2007.
After a long journey it conducted a reconnaissance flyby for the study of Pluto and its moons in 2015.
New Horizons sent pictures back of Pluto’s icy surface and also gave us new insights into its moon, Charon.
Previous pictures of Pluto consisted of fuzzy gray blobs that didn’t really resemble a dwarf planet.
Pluto is around 3 billion miles (5 billion km) from Earth and New Horizons had a number of challenges due to the lack of the sun’s rays so far out.
A one-way communication with the little spacecraft took 4.5 hours.
When astronomer Clyde Tombaugh first discovered Pluto in 1930, it was little more than a pale image.
New Horizons has given us a lot more information on the dwarf planet.
The earliest pictures showed us that Pluto has a surprisingly young surface with an 11,000 ft (3,500 meters) mountain range.
Scientists believe that the range is around 100 million years old and is due to more recent geological surface activity.
They are still unsure how this happened. North of the mountain range, the dwarf planet has craters. The area has been informally named “Sputnik Planum.”
Additional discoveries include evidence that Pluto’s moon, Charon, may once have had a subsurface ocean.
Pluto also shows odd water ice hills that float in an ocean of nitrogen. A study in 2018 suggested that there may be an asphalt layer just beneath Pluto’s surface.
Its incredible distance from the sun leaves questions as to whether Pluto could have the ingredients required for life.
In September, 2017 New Horizons awakened from a five-month hibernation period that was planned so that it could have an extended mission.
The hibernation saves on power and resources and gives a spacecraft a longer lifespan in space.
New Horizons began its new venture into examining items in the Kuiper Belt, discovering MU69, also known as Ultima Thule.
This odd-shaped item in the Belt is a remnant of the ancient formation of the solar system.
Upon further examination of the data being sent back, scientists began to think that MU69 could possibly have a planetary companion or moon.
When New Horizons passed over Ultima Thule it filled its hard drive with around 7 gigabytes of data about the little object in the Kuiper Belt.
It now has the challenge of sending all of this data back to the scientists on Earth.
New Horizons broke the previous record for sending back images at a distance.
Voyager 1 sent back the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth in 1990, at 3.75 billion miles (6 billion km) from Earth.
Even the best telescopes aren’t as good as being close up.
There is discussion of modifying the flight software so that the LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) on New Horizons could be altered to be more of a discovery method for any KBO’s in the path of New Horizon.
The team supporting New Horizons wants to give New Horizons a fighting chance for encountering other objects.
As the mission begins to slow down, there is another new idea that has become really popular.
A group of scientists, engineers, artists and others are suggesting that we place a kind of “message from Earth” on the New Horizons spacecraft hard drive.
Jill Tarter, co-founder of the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) said:
“When New Horizons gets past Pluto, [and] has done all its data and is going on the slow boat to the heliopause [the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space], then it might be possible to just reprogram about 100 megabytes of its memory and upload a new sights and sounds of Earth that are not created by a small group of scientists but, in fact, are globally crowdsourced.”
Currently the New Horizons team is making use of the time that it has to search for additional targets. The team doesn’t plan on submitting a proposal for extending the life of the mission until 2020.