What’s more Ultima than Thule?
Principal investigator Alan Stern reveals what the future holds for NASA’s distant spacecraft
What is the future of New Horizons?
In January, after the Ultima Thule flyby, we will know precisely how much fuel is left, and then later in 2019 we will plan another search. Probably not with Hubble this time, but with our own telescopes that are onboard New Horizons. And we won’t begin that search until much later, until 2020, because our spacecraft memory will be full of data from this flyby, and we have to send all of that back to Earth first. It will take us until about August or September of 2020 to finish downloading all of the images, the spectra and other data from the Ultima flyby. Then we will be in a position to start thinking about the next search for a target. We won’t leave the Kuiper Belt until approximately the year 2027, so we have lots of time.
What might the new target be like?
It won’t be another cold classical KBO, because we will have passed beyond that region. It will be something from the very distant Kuiper Belt, and it will have something else to teach us. It’s actually a mystery. The further things are the fainter they are, because they’re not strongly illuminated by the Sun, and we know less and less. But the instruments we have on New Horizons were built to operate in those lower light levels, and the spacecraft and the payload are fully capable of conducting another flyby years from now. Everything in the Kuiper
Belt is spread out – that’s why we call it ‘space’ – there’s no probable chance that we would crash into an object by accident. Do you think there are new planets to be discovered in the belt? What’s out there in the distant Kuiper Belt? Everything I see scientifically indicates that the answer is yes. Probably many of them. We don’t have enough fuel to fly to one, but if one were discovered from Earth then we could use our telescopes on board, and potentially learn things you couldn't learn from Earth. But first you’ve got to know that they’re out there and where they are.