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August 24, 2023

The PI’s Perspective: In the Service of Planetary Science, Astrophysics and Heliophysics

New Horizons is healthy, in active operations mode and speeding across the Kuiper Belt. Just as it did while hibernating from June 2022 through February 2023, the spacecraft is collecting round-the-clock data on our Sun’s cocoon in the galaxy called the heliosphere.

The flight of New Horizons is depicted here from its launch in 2006, across the solar system to reconnoiter Pluto and then the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft is speeding so fast that it will leave the solar system and enter interstellar space in the 2030s — never to return. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

I am even more excited about an intense period of diverse science observations that is stretching across August and September. We’ll stop the spacecraft from spinning and use all of its onboard instruments to collect data on the Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), and to do some unique astrophysics and heliospheric science that requires the spacecraft to point itself at hundreds of different targets.

This nearly eight-week long suite of observations represents an unprecedented use of a spacecraft for three different scientific fields from a perch so far out in the solar system — 5 billion miles from the Sun. Nothing like this has ever been done in the history of space exploration. These new observations will include making images at record distances from Earth and the Sun, but will also involve more than a dozen types of scientific observations, most of which missions that traveled this distance before New Horizons couldn’t accomplish either because they didn’t know the Kuiper Belt was there or they weren’t equipped to make these kinds of observations. In essence, New Horizons is serving as an observatory in the Kuiper Belt, fulfilling missions in planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics!

Among the planned observations are:

  • Telescopic planetary science observations of a new, more distant KBO to determine its shape, surface properties and spin period.
  • Imaging the far sides of both Uranus and Neptune to better determine the properties of their atmospheres and the energy balance of both planets.
  • Test dust-impact measurements using our Radio Science Experiment receiver as a whole-spacecraft dust detector to complement data taken by our Student Dust Counter instrument.
  • All-sky Alice ultraviolet spectrometer mapping of the hydrogen gas in the Sun’s distant outer heliosphere, which has never been done before.
  • All-sky Alice ultraviolet spectrometer mapping of clouds, shocks and other structures in the local interstellar medium that surrounds the heliosphere.
  • New and much more extensive observations using our Long Range Reconnaissance Imager to measure the visible-wavelength brightness and spatial variations of the mysterious cosmic optical background that New Horizons discovered in 2021.
  • The first mapping of the universe’s cosmic ultraviolet background with an instrument far enough away from the Sun to be beyond all of the ultraviolet fog that obscures measurements taken by all other spacecraft. (Check out a great blog piece from New Horizons team member Tod Lauer on this subject.)

These various datasets will then be transmitted to Earth for scientific analysis and permanent, open-access archiving for use by the planetary, heliospheric and astrophysics research communities. We plan to take so much data that at our current bit-transmission rates, we expect it will take five to six months to download the entire set, depending on how much tracking and communications time NASA’s Deep Space Network of receivers on Earth can devote to New Horizons.

The New Horizons spacecraft during final launch preparations in late 2005 in a clean room at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

During this same period, we hope to also conduct ground-based searches for new KBOs for New Horizons to explore in the distance or fly by at close range. These observations, in partnership with Japanese colleagues, would take place from Hawaii using the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's giant, 8.2-meter diameter Subaru telescope and its state-of-the-art HyperSuprimeCam imager, the very best telescope-camera combination in the world for these searches.

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's Subaru Telescope, in Hawaii. (Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/Subaru Telescope)

If that’s isn’t enough, the New Horizons science team is creating a wide range of scientific publications reporting new results from mission Kuiper Belt, KBO and heliospheric studies. And our engineering team has started to design and code upgraded fault protection software that will enable New Horizons to operate at distances of 100 times as far from the Sun as Earth — nearly twice as far out as we already have operated!

And before I close, I want to also let you know that our mission website at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ is being refreshed to include new details about the activities New Horizons is undertaking in our second extended mission.

The New Horizons mission website at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ is being updated and will offer new details about the current activities of the spacecraft.

With so much going on, I think you can see that the New Horizons team is hard at work, making and planning for scientific discoveries, as NASA’s only mission in both the Kuiper Belt and the outer heliosphere.

Well, that’s my latest update. I’ll write again later this year. In the meantime, I hope you’ll always keep exploring — just as we do!

–Alan Stern
New Horizons Principal Investigator

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