Scientists disagree with NASA on the future of the New Horizons mission

"We need to finish the Kuiper Belt" after "finally" getting a spacecraft there, the New Horizons principal investigator said.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft.
An artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft.


NASA's New Horizons mission is in limbo as the space agency and scientists debate the future of the mission.

The current situation began last year when NASA reviewed a proposal from the mission's science team for a second extended mission, a report from Nature reveals.

The team proposed a multidisciplinary science mission for New Horizons, including a mix of astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary science research as it travels through the Kuiper Belt. While NASA agreed to fund part of the mission, it rejected the planetary portion of this proposal.

NASA chooses not to approve the full New Horizons proposal

New Horizons launched aboard one of United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets in 2006. It flew by Pluto in 2015, and the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in early 2019. It is expected to continue traversing and operating from the Kuiper Belt beyond 2028.

In their recent proposal, the New Horizons science team proposed ambitious plans to extend the mission by three years, allowing for a range of different science operations.

The focus would be "only [on] things that can be done by dint of being at that great distance or in the Kuiper Belt," Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said at a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) on May 3, according to a SpaceNews piece.

However, NASA only approved it for two years. It opted to fund New Horizons through the fiscal year of 2024 before having the mission compete in a separate senior review for the heliophysics division for the fiscal year of 2025 and beyond.

This is because NASA feels New Horizons should be more focused on specific aspects of its mission. The agency claimed that the astrophysics and heliophysics portions of the New Horizons proposal were much more compelling than the planetary portion.

"The proposed Kuiper belt object (KBO) studies are unlikely to dramatically improve the state of knowledge," NASA stated in its senior review report. New Horizons would be able to observe KBOs from much closer and from angles not possible from Earth. Still, the agency said it didn't believe these observations would provide added value compared to observations from ground-based observatories.

The New Horizons team's rebuttal

The New Horizons science team disputes this assessment, however. "We think that this is shortsighted," Stern said during the OPAG meeting. "It was the only mission ever sent and the only mission planned to study the Kuiper Belt, and we're still there."

"We need to finish the Kuiper Belt," he continued. "We finally got a spacecraft here. We're going to leave the Kuiper Belt in a few years. Why so impatient over pennies out of the planetary budget?"

Stern also noted that his team likely won't take up NASA's option of submitting a proposal for the separate senior review, something he likened to "walking the plank", as it could still result in "the entire science team [being] disbanded."

At the time of writing, the future of the New Horizons mission is unclear. While the spacecraft will continue to operate beyond 2024, it could continue without a dedicated planetary science team beyond that point.

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