NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on January 21, 2021
New Horizons Co-investigator
Planetary Science Institute
"Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another."
New Horizons captures the spirit of this quote for me. It launched about the time I defended my graduate thesis. I had been working with scientists on the team since my undergraduate years and was sort of tangentially connected to the mission without being officially part of it. My focus has always been on the Kuiper Belt, even though I got into astronomy because of Pluto. The New Horizons team was always gracious and generous to allow my participation.
Even before the spacecraft launched we had had plans for finding a Kuiper Belt object that we could fly by after Pluto, but the specific object was illusive for years. In 2014 we won a large chunk of Hubble Space Telescope time for the search and finally found our prize. So behind the scenes as we prepared for the Pluto flyby in 2015, we also knew there was a second destination for New Horizons. Seeing the images of Pluto, Charon and especially the small moons Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos provided an exciting preview of the object surfaces we might find farther out in the Kuiper Belt. It was exciting to think that it was possible to finally gather actual pictures of the surface of one of these objects that I had been studying for so many years, instead of it just being a point of light from Earth-based telescopes.
Our flyby of Arrokoth in January 2019, nearly 13 years after New Horizons' launch, was icing on the cake for the spacecraft I lovingly describe to my children and students as a baby grand piano flying near the edge of our solar system - small in size, but beautiful in the music (pictures) it produces. Seeing Arrokoth up close, and confirming many of our predictions, was like placing a capstone on the work New Horizons had already accomplished. Knowing that our spacecraft is still alive and well, and continuing to make observations of KBOs even from long distance, is a tribute to all the hard work of everyone involved in the mission itself as well as a beacon for future generations as we look from our world to others.
Hubble Space Telescope discovery images of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth, which, 13 years after launch, New Horizons made the most distant world ever explored up close. (Credit: NASA/STScI)
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