NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft (NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/Dan Durda) | SkyNews
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft (NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/Dan Durda)

New Horizons begins another Kuiper Belt mission

This new phase is called the second Kuiper Extended Mission, or KEM2.

The New Horizons spacecraft started a new mission in the Kuiper Belt. NASA said it has enough power to continue studying the fringes of the Solar System for decades. 

The spacecraft will wake up from its 10-month hibernation on March 1, 2023, according to a written statement from Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission. New Horizons will begin sending its final observations of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) Arrokoth when it wakes up.

The spacecraft will de-spin in the third week of April and use its onboard cameras to begin five to six weeks of researching planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics. This includes studying energy balances of Uranus and Neptune, recording distant observations of other KBOs, analyzing visible and ultraviolet cosmic background light, and mapping the “local” interstellar hydrogen gas.

New Horizons will return to hibernation in May and de-spin in September for more remote sensing observations. The data will take months to be transmitted. When New Horizons flew past Pluto in early 2015, it took 15 months for 6.25 gigabytes of data to reach Earth.

In hibernation and during intensive science modes, New Horizons records dust impact, plasma, and charged particle spectrometer measurements. This provides researchers with a better understanding of the Kuiper Belt and the Sun’s outer heliosphere.

New Horizons completed its original mission when it became the first spacecraft to study Pluto and its moons following a nine-year journey from Earth. It flew past Arrokoth in 2019. 

This new phase for New Horizons is called the second Kuiper Extended Mission, or KEM2. Stern said New Horizons will be functioning into the 2040s or 2050s. The spacecraft can travel 482.8 million kilometres per year, and will be more than 125 times as far from the Sun as the Earth when it runs out of power.

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