NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
October 20, 2021
New Horizons remains healthy and continues to send valuable data from the Kuiper Belt, even as it speeds farther and farther from Earth and the Sun.
Shown here in a Kennedy Space Center cleanroom just a few weeks before launch in January 2006, New Horizons is now 52 times as far from the Sun as Earth and moving almost 300 million miles outward each year -- which in itself is more than three times the distance between the Earth and Sun. (Credit: NASA)
At nearly 1,000 pages, “The Pluto System After New Horizons” updates everything known about Pluto and its system of moons. (Credit: Alan Stern)
Our team has been extremely busy since I last wrote in the spring. One of the most important activities since then has been ground testing, uploading and flight-testing new software for our Alice ultraviolet spectrometer and our main (Command and Data Handling) computer. The two new software packages were transmitted to New Horizons by radio link in late July and August. Then in September and very early October, we took these upgrades for a comprehensive test spin. Not all this test data is back on Earth yet, but everything we’ve seen from those tests so far indicates the new capabilities perform as planned and can now be used to enhance our science return as we continue outward, exploring the Kuiper Belt.
Those new capabilities include a high time resolution mode for the SWAP solar wind plasma spectrometer, image-combining capabilities for our Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) when they are looking at faint sources, and dust detection and thermal mapping capabilities for the REX radio science experiment. We also added a new sky-mapping capability to the Alice ultraviolet spectrometer. We’re excited to start using these new capabilities! We’re also excited that new burst-detection flight software for our PEPSSI plasma spectrometer is now being written and tested, and will be uploaded next year.
In addition to the new software work, New Horizons also conducted new Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) observations in September, and made our first hydrogen maps of the sky as seen from the Kuiper Belt using the Alice ultraviolet spectrometer. And on top of that our groundbased KBO search team has been proposing, winning and executing observing runs to find KBOs for New Horizons to study in the distance, or even fly by. Amazingly, they are finding objects we will past closest to many years from now, much farther out than previously predicted!
In other mission news, our nearly 1,000-page compendium volume called “The Pluto System After New Horizons,” which updates everything known about Pluto and its system of moons, was published in July. And guess what happened? It sold out within less than two weeks! We are told by the Space Science Series that that has never happened before. Fortunately, after a new printing, the book is again available through commercial booksellers and the University of Arizona Press, home of the Space Science Series.
Our team has also been busy writing up many new scientific results. These range from the discovery of the two tightest known KBO binaries to the discovery that KBO surface properties are correlated with their composition. Other new papers detail the properties and origin of the many thousands of sublimation pits in Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia glacier, new measurements of dust in the Kuiper Belt, and a far ranging look at the geophysical properties of our most recent flyby target, the KBO Arrokoth!
We are now working hard to propose on NASA’s Jan. 18 deadline to continue New Horizons for another three years. Because we hope that we can find another KBO to fly by, we have begun conserving fuel even more stringently than before, maximizing the chance of reaching another KBO, which would require a course-correcting targeting maneuver using that fuel. While we do that, we still plan to collect data on the Sun’s outer heliosphere, which is the dust and gas and plasma environment of the Kuiper Belt. NASA will review and then let us know the fate of that proposal in early spring. There are a whole lot of crossed fingers on our team!
Well, that’s my report for now. I’ll write again soon to review the past year and look ahead to our plans for 2022. In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep on exploring — just as we do!
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