What’s more Ul­tima than Thule?

Prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Alan Stern re­veals what the fu­ture holds for NASA’s dis­tant space­craft

All About Space - - Beyond Pluto -

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.

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