« Back to The PI's Perspective

December 17, 2021

The PI’s Perspective: Looking Back, Looking Forward

New Horizons remains healthy and continues to send valuable data from deep in the Kuiper Belt – more than 5 billion miles away -- even as it speeds farther and farther from the Earth and Sun.

As 2021 winds down, I want to recount what the New Horizons project has accomplished this year, and also look ahead to tell you about our plans for 2022.

During a busy and productive 2021, our science team published or submitted for publication no less than 49 research papers detailing discoveries about our flyby targets in the Pluto system and at the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) Arrokoth, other KBOs and dwarf planets, the outer heliosphere of the Sun, and even cosmology! Meanwhile, our mission operations and engineering teams have planned and executed literally dozens of new scientific observations, tested and uploaded new main-computer software to enhance spacecraft data-collection capabilities, and tested and uploaded software that enables new capabilities for our Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) and Alice spectrometers. We’ve also sent another year’s worth of data and six separate “metaproduct” datasets to NASA’s Planetary Data System for use by anyone in the world, researcher or private citizen, and we’ve continued outreach and communications activities that inform the public about discoveries and other New Horizons news.

Shown pre-pandemic, the New Horizons mission ops team works from this room at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to control and collect data from the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

In addition to all of that, we’ve continued ground based searches for new KBOs to study or fly by, and we’ve been hard at work on our proposal to NASA, due next month, to continue the New Horizons mission from 2023 through 2025.

This early concept drawing of New Horizons illustrates the view of the Sun from deep in the Kuiper Belt. The Sun’s heliosphere, which New Horizons is exploring using its SWAP and PEPSSI charged particle spectrometers and its Alice ultraviolet spectrometer, also contains countless small dust particles (shown here) that trace the populations of Kuiper Belt objects; these dust particles are mapped out by the Student Dust Counter aboard New Horizons. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/ Dan Durda/Ken Moscati)

As we plan for 2022, here are a few of the activities we will be concentrating on in the new year:

  • Completing the mission extension proposal due in January.
  • Uploading the last set of planned instrument software upgrades, this time for our Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) charged-particle spectrometer.
  • Testing and then executing our first spacecraft hibernation period since 2018, which will save both fuel and budget.
  • Testing a new power-saving capability that will allow the spacecraft to achieve maximum data transmission rates by using both data transmitters for at least five more years, even as spacecraft power levels decline due to the half-life of the plutonium in our nuclear battery.
  • Searching for KBOs to study or fly by using new machine learning tools and a deep-search camera filter that together will more than quadruple the number of objects we expect to detect.
  • Sending back most of the Arrokoth flyby data still on the spacecraft’s digital recorders; some of that data remains on board due to higher-priority data transmission needs and some downtime activities at NASA’s Deep Space Network, which we use to communicate with New Horizons.
  • Continuing to analyze data to produce and publish scientific discoveries from the mission.

Regarding our proposal to NASA to extend New Horizons funding and operations across 2023-2025, we have ambitious plans. If a new flyby target is found, we will concentrate on that flyby. But if no target is found, we will convert New Horizons into a highly-productive observatory conducting planetary science, astrophysics and heliospheric observations that no other spacecraft can — simply because New Horizons is the only spacecraft in the Kuiper Belt and the Sun’s outer heliosphere, and far enough away to perform some unique kinds of astrophysics. Those studies would range from unique new astronomical observations of Uranus, Neptune and dwarf planets, to searches for free floating black holes and the local interstellar medium, along with new observations of the faint optical and ultraviolet light of extragalactic space. All of this, of course, depends on NASA’s peer review evaluation of our proposal.

And those are only a sampling of the things New Horizons will be doing. If our proposal is approved, I’ll give a more thorough accounting of these and other 2023-2025 plans later next year.

For this update, I also want to mention to you that a number of Pluto system and Arrokoth surfaces features have received official names that our project team proposed. These include Pluto features honoring pioneering early 20th century aviatrix Bessie Coleman and pioneering late 20th century astronaut Sally Ride (https://www.nasa.gov/feature/pluto-landmarks-named-for-aviation-pioneers-sally-ride-and-bessie-coleman/). They also include the first surface feature named on Pluto’s moon Nix, and an official name, “Sky,” for Arrokoth’s largest crater.

Finally, I’d like to give you a small sampling of the research that appeared in our 49 new scientific publications this year:

  • Results on the ages of Pluto’s surface feature ages from careful crater count chronologies, by Kelsi Singer and colleagues.
  • The first comprehensive, close-up look at the far side geology of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, by Ross Beyer and colleagues.
  • A detailed compilation of everything known about the bright ring at the junction (or “neck”) between Arrokoth’s two lobes, by myself and a host of colleagues.
  • Results on the outer heliosphere’s all-important “pick up ions” that dominate the thermal pressure of this faraway region of space, by Dave McComas and colleagues.

Among several discoveries made during its flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in January 2019, New Horizons observed the remarkable and enigmatic bright, symmetric, ring-like “neck” region at the junction between Arrokoth’s two massive lobes. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

As you can see, the New Horizons team has been hard at work, producing both new data and new results as NASA’s only spacecraft in both the Kuiper Belt and the outer heliosphere, and we’re very proud of that!

And that’s my end-of-2021 report to you. I’ll write again once the new year is well underway.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep on exploring — just as we do!

–Alan Stern

There are many ways to follow New Horizons news and commentary on social media! You can find others by searching on the Web.