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December 19, 2023

The PI’s Perspective: The Long Game

New Horizons is healthy and speeding across the Kuiper Belt at a distance of over 5.5 billion miles from Earth!

The spacecraft is collecting round-the-clock data on our Sun’s cocoon in the galaxy called the heliosphere, and transmitting that data as well as the final datasets from our flyby of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) Arrokoth, back to Earth.

New Horizons is the most distant spacecraft in NASA’s fleet of planetary missions, and the only spacecraft exploring the Kuiper Belt. The next closest spacecraft NASA operates is the Jupiter-orbiting Juno, — fully 10 times closer to the Sun than New Horizons! (Image credit: NASA)

The big news for New Horizons since I wrote here in August, is that NASA recently announced extending the mission through 2028-2029!

This is extremely good news because it allows us our team to now make plans with NASA for that science, and for expanding its searches for a new flyby target. New Horizons is the only spacecraft that has or is even planned to explore the Kuiper Belt, as well as the only spacecraft currently exploring the Sun’s outer heliosphere. We’re in this for the long game!

Also, since I last wrote, we conducted eight weeks of intensive remote sensing scientific observations in August and September, that included important new observations for planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics. Already transmitted back to the ground, that data includes:

  • Long-distance observations of a new KBO, to determine its surface properties.
  • Unique, “high phase angle” observations of Uranus and Neptune to better measure the heat balance of both planets.
  • All-sky maps of the hydrogen gas distribution in the Sun’s distant heliosphere – a first-time measurement by spacecraft!
  • All-sky maps of hydrogen gas structures in the interstellar space around our solar system.
  • Far expanded – and unprecedentedly precise – measurements of the cosmic optical background.
  • Test data to determine if our REX radio receiver can be used to detect plasma pulses from micrometeoroid impacts on the spacecraft, to augment data from our Student Dust Counter instrument.

New Horizons sends data to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network. The “DSN” consists of three tracking and communication complexes spread around globe to allow round-the-clock communications with all of NASA’s planetary missions. (Image credit: IEEE/O. Kegege/M. Fuentes/N. Meyer/A. Sil)

Our science team is already analyzing all of this data and working to publish the discoveries from them.

Let me go back to the search for a new KBO flyby target, starting with our plan for 2024. We’ll conduct ground-based observations using some of the largest telescopes in the world, including the Japanese Subaru telescope in Hawaii, which has been the backbone of our previous KBO searches. We are also looking at how we might be able to use the NASA Hubble Space Telescope and the NASA James Webb Space Telescope, as well as the yet-to-be-launched NASA Roman Space Telescope, to search. And we are going even further by creating data analysis tools that harness better AI machine learning techniques to detect even harder-to-find KBOs.

Meanwhile, the New Horizons engineering team is planning on a major upgrade of the software that will allow the spacecraft to run on reduced power levels for the duration of the mission. This software will undergo a design review in January, code development later in 2024, intensive testing across late 2024 and early 2025, and will then be transmitted through NASA’s Deep Space Network to New Horizons’ onboard computer in the spring or summer of 2025.

The New Horizons science team held its most recent meeting at Boston University in late October. (Image credit: NASA New Horizons)

And before I close, I want to remind you that we continue to refresh our website at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ to include details about New Horizons activities in our second extended mission.

Well, that’s my latest update. I want to wish you a safe and joyful end to your year, happy holidays, and all the best for 2024!

I’ll write again in early 2024. In the meantime, I hope you’ll always keep exploring — just as we do!

–Alan Stern
New Horizons Principal Investigator

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