In a somewhat shocking development, NASA has decided to extend its New Horizons mission’s time in the Kuiper Belt, where it will look for an object to orbit and study. The spacecraft was originally sent out to study the Kuiper Belt, but then NASA planned to move it from the Planetary Science Division to the Heliophysics Division, where it would focus all its efforts on studying the Sun.
Naturally, the folks behind the mission were against this, instead wanting to continue their studies of the Kuiper Belt. They challenged the proposal to transfer the mission, and it seems they have won out, as NASA announced the mission’s extension well into the late 2020s.
“Following a senior review and feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders, NASA will continue the NASA New Horizons mission focus on multidisciplinary science,” Nicola Fox, associate administrator of science at NASA, shared in a post on X.
The New Horizons mission is expected to continue its work in the Kuiper Belt while also studying and collecting heliophysics data. Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and how it interacts with its surrounding environment. Several NASA spacecraft, including the Parker Solar Probe, are already dedicated to this particular area of study.
New Horizons launched all the way back in 2006, and spent close to 15 years reaching its orbital perch near the farthest reaches of our known solar system. It’s located roughly 50 times farther away than Earth from the Sun, and has spent the past couple of years studying objects within the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt is a donut-shaped ring of icy objects – likely comets and asteroids – that extends behind the orbit of Neptune. Astronomers believe that it is made up of the remnants and leftovers from the early days of our solar system, and that it could help us discover the origins of how Earth and the other planets formed.
NASA proposed extending the New Horizons mission to act as a planetary mission until 2024, and then swapping it completely to heliophysics studies in 2025. However, the science community banded together to push back on the proposal, leading to the new directive we’ve just seen announced.