NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
November 4, 2020
New Horizons is healthy and continuing to send data back from the flyby of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) Arrokoth back in late 2018 and early 2019, even as it speeds deeper into the Kuiper Belt and farther from the Earth and the Sun.
By next spring, New Horizons will be 50 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is – only the fifth operating spacecraft to reach that distance. But as far as we've come, there's much more ahead! We plan to upgrade the spacecraft system and instrument software aboard New Horizons to enhance the mission's scientific capabilities and to search for new KBO targets to study or even fly by. I'll describe both of those plans just below.
But before I do that, I want to share some other news: NASA has approved my nomination of five new co-investigators on our mission science team! All five of these talented scientists worked on our Arrokoth flyby, and most were involved in the Pluto flyby as well. Their appointment to co-investigator status is recognition of their growing role on the team and their hard work and productivity over the few past years.
The five individuals are: planetary astronomer Susan Benecchi, of the Planetary Science Institute: planetary geologist Ross Beyer, of the SETI Institute; planetary scientist Carly Howett, of Southwest Research Institute; planetary physicist Orkan Umurhan, of the SETI Institute; and planetary geologist Oliver White, of the SETI Institute.
I also want to share the news that we are now regularly posting some of the many new mission science results being published in summary form on our website at https://pluto.jhuapl.edu; you can find these under News and then Discovery Stories at https://pluto.jhuapl.edu/News-Center/Discovery-Stories.php. I hope you enjoy them, and we'll keep 'em coming in the years ahead!
We're now highlighting science discovery stories, covering our voyage from Pluto and well into the Kuiper Belt, on our project website!
Back to those flight software enhancements: the new software will expand the science-gathering capabilities of four of the seven instruments aboard New Horizons by late next year, and enable us to eventually improve the capabilities of two other instruments as well. These improvements include faster cadence measurements of the charged particle environment of the Kuiper Belt and the Sun's distant heliosphere, as well as the ability to co-add images taken on New Horizons to improve their signal-to-noise ratio – making it easier to spot the objects we're imaging! -- and greatly reduce the time it takes to send these images back to Earth. We're also turning our radio science experiment (REX) into a dust-impact detector to complement our Student Dust Counter, and improving the sky-mapping capabilities for both REX and our ultraviolet mapping spectrometer called Alice.
Software engineers are already working on most of these improvements. The first will be ready to send to New Horizons early next year. Most others will be complete and finished ground testing by mid-summer. All in all, we'll be generating new science with virtually all of these new capabilities by late 2021, and I can't wait!
The other update I want to provide is about the results of our collaboration with the giant Japanese Subaru astronomical observatory located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The Subaru telescope is the best tool on this planet for finding new KBOs for New Horizons to study or even fly by. The reason for this is that Subaru is one of the very largest telescopes on Earth and is equipped with the largest wide-field-of-view imager of any of the giant telescopes currently operating.
This year we partnered with the Subaru Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Subaru's parent organization, to search for new KBOs along our path. Subaru provided us with about a week's worth of observing nights in each of May, June and August, along with some follow-up time in October. The results are spectacular: about 75 new KBOs found in the direction New Horizons is traveling. Between 15 and 20 will pass close enough to New Horizons to be scientifically observed, beginning this December.
The Japanese Subaru telescope in Hawaii. (Credit: Subaru Telescope/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/National Institutes of Natural Sciences)
Although none of these KBOs are close enough for us to reach for a close flyby like we did at Arrokoth, the science we can do even from a distance will produce new results on KBO surface properties, shapes, rotational periods, and close-in moons that could not be achieved any other way. We've already asked for more time on Subaru in 2021 and expect to detect still more KBOs to study if that observing time is approved. Perhaps (if we get lucky) we'll even snag a new flyby target if we can find a KBO that's within reach of our current fuel supply (about an eighth of a tank, which was about the same amount it cost to get to Arrokoth).
And if we don't find that KBO in 2021, we'll search again in 2022 — the potential for groundbreaking discoveries with another flyby is too great not to keep searching! And remember, it took us about four years of careful searching to find Arrokoth back in 2014 –we are in this for the long game.
And with that, I'll conclude this PI report, my last for 2020. But stay tuned: I'll have a special report in January, when we'll be celebrating the 15th anniversary of New Horizons' launch. In the meantime, I hope you'll keep on exploring — just as we do!
There are many ways to follow New Horizons news and commentary on social media! You can find others by searching on the Web.