It took NASA’s New Horizons mission nearly 15 years to get to the point where it is today, about 50 times farther from the Sun than Earth is. From its unique vantage point, the spacecraft has been studying the frozen depths of the solar system to help piece together the origin story of the planets orbiting the sun.
like New Horizons spacecraft She continues her journey on the outer edge of the solar system, and uncertainty awaits her. NASA is looking to change the primary goal of New Horizons, refocusing the mission on studying the sun’s environment rather than observing objects in the donut-shaped ring known as Kuiper belt. This made some people very unhappy.
“NASA spent close to $1 billion to get this spacecraft into the Kuiper Belt,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Gizmodo during a phone interview. “You spend a billion dollars to buy a spacecraft all the way across the solar system and then divert it from its original purpose.”
The science team in charge of the mission has expressed frustration with NASA’s proposal, arguing that the New Horizons spacecraft is running and providing groundbreaking data from its unique location in the far reaches of the solar system. New Horizons is the fifth spacecraft to reach this distance after Voyager 1 and 2, as well as their predecessors Pioneer 10 and 11.
But as Stern explained: “No spacecraft has explored the Kuiper Belt before and there are no plans for it that no spacecraft has come again yet,” adding, “We know that if New Horizons has to stop exploring the Kuiper Belt, it will be The end of any exploration of the Kuiper Belt by spacecraft for decades because it takes so long to get there.”
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The debate about New Horizons’ future began last year when the science team put forward a proposal to extend the mission for three more years. In January 2022, NASA formed a review committee to discuss the proposal. The space agency decided to extend the mission by two years instead, funding New Horizons as a planetary mission through 2024, with consideration to funding it as a heliophysics mission starting in 2025.
Apart from exploring the Pluto system and Kuiper belt objects such as ArrokothBecoming the most distant solar system object ever visited by a spacecraft, New Horizons also studies the sun and its surrounding environment. “The thing is, they’re not in competition,” Stern said. “We monitor solar physics every day…and there’s no reason to make it a battle between these two things, they coexist.” The mission team argues that New Horizons can continue to be a planetary and heliophysics mission simultaneously without affecting the spacecraft’s cost or trajectory.
NASA, on the other hand, sees no value in continuing the mission’s Kuiper Belt observations. “The team’s notable primary conclusion was that the proposed studies of Kuiper belt objects are unlikely to significantly improve knowledge because spacecraft lack the resources for long-term high-frequency observations of light curves, which are essential to planetary science goals/goals. suggested,” according to Mr Review report.
Launched in early 2006, New Horizons is headed toward the outer reaches of the solar system. It was the spacecraft The first to visit Pluto in July 2015The longest flight in history. In 2019, New Horizons searches for its next flying target, a primitive binary organism later named Arrokoth (a Native American term for sky). The Kuiper Belt is filled with hundreds of millions of objects, of which New Horizons has discovered 37 so far.
“From its unique location in the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons makes observations that can’t be made from anywhere else; even the stars look different from the spacecraft’s view,” NASA says. books in 2021.
According to Stern, TThe New Horizons team is currently searching for a second flying object, and plans to observe Saturn and its moons (the spacecraft has previously Discover Neptune and Uranus). Everything in the Kuiper Belt “It formed billions of years ago and is very well preserved,” Stern said. “It is the best preserved part of the solar system in terms of telling us the origin of the planets and the original days of the solar system, very scientifically It’s a gold mine.”
Stern started working on the New Horizons mission more than 20 years ago when it was just an idea. Today, it is feared that the mission team will be disbanded if NASA’s decision goes into effect. The team, along with other members of the planetary science community She is lobbying to try to convince NASA to reverse her decision. Apart from planetary scientists, there is a group of heliophysicists He also penned an open letter highlighting how New Horizons can continue to be “a powerful tool across divisions.”
“New Horizons has enabled uninterrupted sun physics measurements throughout the heliosphere for more than a decade, along with leading Kuiper Belt and other planetary observations,” read the letter, which was sent Monday. Conducting the mission’s heliophysics observations is comprehensive and in no way conflicts with planetary science observations of the Kuiper Belt and Kuiper Belt objects.”
The New Horizons team is also in talks with NASA, but that “wasn’t effective,” according to Stern. “Our team believes that stopping exploration of the Kuiper Belt is short-sighted and premature,” Stern said. “It took us more than a decade to fly through the solar system to be in the Kuiper Belt, and we think it would be unwise and a bad use of NASA money to move the mission away from exploring the Kuiper Belt.”
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