What's next? Launched in 2006 as a part of NASA's New Frontiers program, the New Horizon probe completed its primary mission with flying colors. After performing a flyby study of Pluto in 2015, New Horizon continued to collect invaluable scientific data about the Kuiper Belt and the heliosphere.
After the voltage tricks applied to Voyager 2 to make the 45-year-old mission fly a bit longer, NASA plans to operate the New Horizons spacecraft in low-activity mode for seven more years. The space agency is interested in using the probe to collect data about the Kuiper Belt – the circumstellar disc in the outer Solar System where Pluto's orbit is located – and beyond.
New Horizon's mission will begin in fiscal year 2025, NASA announced. It will focus on "gathering unique heliophysics data" during an extended, low-activity mode of operations. The probe will be on a new path within the Kuiper Belt, where there's a chance of a future close flyby of one of the dwarf planets or asteroids dwelling there.
While in low-activity mode, New Horizons will conserve fuel and "reduce operational complexity" while NASA searches for a potential flyby candidate. The less-demanding operations can keep the probe active until it leaves the Kuiper Belt in 2028 or 2029.
NASA still needs to assess the budget implications of continuing the New Horizons mission beyond its original plan. The agency will rebalance funding within the New Frontiers program, which includes several planned exploration missions as a starting point. Future projects "may be impacted" as well.
Despite the budgeting issue, NASA decided to extend the New Horizons mission because the probe has a "unique position in our solar system" to answer important questions about the heliosphere. The spacecraft could provide "extraordinary opportunities" for science.
"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," said Nicola Fox, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
In its decade-long mission, New Horizons was already instrumental in helping scientists study "worlds at the edge of our Solar System," like dwarf planet Pluto or the weirdly-shaped, trans-Neptunian object Arrokoth (2014 MU69). Thanks to NASA's new plans, New Horizons could become one of the few space probes to investigate the outermost part of the bubble-like region of space known as the heliosphere.