NASA's New Horizons probe scores extended vacation in Kuiper Belt

Good news: More science. Bad news: Somebody has to pay for it

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which performed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, is being granted a mission extension through 2029.

Starting in fiscal 2025, the probe will focus on gathering heliophysics data while preserving the opportunity for another Kuiper Belt Object flyby if a suitable candidate is detected.

Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said: "The New Horizons mission has a unique position in our solar system to answer important questions about our heliosphere and provide extraordinary opportunities for multidisciplinary science for NASA and the scientific community.

"The agency decided that it was best to extend operations for New Horizons until the spacecraft exits the Kuiper Belt, which is expected in 2028 through 2029."

A May 2022 review [PDF] of the mission noted merits in proposed heliophysics and astrophysics investigations but stated that "the proposed studies of Kuiper Belt Objects are unlikely to markedly improve knowledge."

A two-year extension was later approved [PDF]. The fate of the mission once that extension concluded was uncertain. One option was to transfer the mission to NASA's heliophysics division. Doing so would have ruled out any further work by the planetary science team, a move resisted by New Horizon's principal investigator, Alan Stern.

When Stern spoke to The Register in 2020, he hoped the team would find another Kuiper Belt Object to examine. He also reckoned that the power supply could last into the 2030s.

Stern took to X over the weekend to express his delight at the news, saying: "I want to thank everyone who supported us in getting #NASA to continue the exploration of the Kuiper Belt by its @NASANewHorizons spacecraft – You did it!"

However, NASA warned there may yet be sacrifices required to pay for the mission extension and said the agency "will assess the budget impact of continuing the New Horizons mission so far beyond its original plan of exploration."

The duration of the primary mission was nine and a half years. New Horizons has now almost doubled that.

NASA added that the extension of operations of the New Horizons spacecraft might impact future projects.

Built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 18, 2006. It took a closeup of Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper Belt Object Arrokoth in 2019. After Pioneer 10 and 11 and the still-running Voyager probes, it is the fifth spacecraft to be leaving the solar system. ®

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