After Pluto, Spacecraft Has Another Big Mission

Next up: the Kuiper belt
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 15, 2015 7:57 PM CDT
After Pluto, Spacecraft Has Another Big Mission
This combination image released by NASA shows Pluto, left, and its largest moon, Charon.   (NASA/APL/SwRI via AP)

The New Horizons spacecraft has wowed us back on Earth with its 3 billion-mile Pluto mission, but it's still got a lot of traveling to do. In fact, scientists expect it to keep making headlines for another two decades or so. After Pluto, the spacecraft is off to explore the Kuiper belt, which USA Today describes as a "region of the solar system beyond the known planets." In about a month, mission leaders will pick an object in the belt and chart a course for it—a trip that will take about two years. Smithsonian explains the significance: "These objects are some of the oldest, most pristine nubbins of ice and rock in the solar system—leftovers from the process that formed our cosmic neighborhood some 4.6 billion years ago."

After that, the spacecraft "will escape the sun's influence and never again return to our solar system," in the words of Business Insider. At some point in the mid-2030s, it won't have enough power to communicate with Earth anymore, but scientists are eager to glean what they can between now and then. "We have a chance to go further and explore the deep reaches of the heliosphere, like Voyager did, and to do that with much more modern instruments, and hopefully return data that will really add to the storehouse of what we know about our environment in the solar system," says principal investigator Alan Stern. (See the first closeup of Pluto.)

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