Spaceflight Insider

Opinion: New Horizons should remain a planetary mission

NASA's New Horizons mission spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s New Horizons mission spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

A little-known proposal is threatening the future of NASA’s New Horizons mission, and for reasons unknown, the space press has hardly reported on this development.

This needs to change, as the public has the right to know that one of this country’s most successful planetary missions is in danger of being shut down before its time.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons has captured breathtaking images of Pluto and its large moon Charon, as well as a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) one billion miles beyond it.

From the beginning, New Horizons has been a planetary mission. Its exploration of not just Pluto but primitive KBOs that have remained unchanged since the solar system’s earliest days continues to reveal new insights into the solar system’s formation and evolution.

Now, New Horizons as a planetary mission is facing premature cancellation. For no clear budgetary or scientific reason, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is considering ending it as a planetary mission and transferring control of it from the agency’s planetary science division to its heliophysics division.

Incredibly, this would remove the current New Horizons team, many of whom have dedicated decades to seeing it through from an idea to launch to Pluto and beyond. Instead, it would put the spacecraft under the control of a new heliophysics team.

When a similar move was done with the Voyagers once they ran out of planets to visit, the mission’s leadership and most of its team was allowed to remain in control. It makes little sense to remove New Horizons from the loyal, dedicated group who fought for it every step of the way and are now guiding it through the uncharted territory of the Kuiper Belt.

Such a move is nothing less than a slap in the face to a team that has poured their minds and hearts into one of NASA’s most successful planetary missions and still have so much more to give.

Eventually, when it leaves the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will concentrate solely on the heliophysics of the outer solar system. But for now, it still has sufficient fuel to continue studying the Kuiper Belt for another five years. It is the only vehicle in place to conduct in situ studies of this region. Arbitrarily ending the planetary mission half a decade early wastes a unique opportunity that neither NASA nor any other space agency is likely to have for decades.

Small KBOs like Arrokoth, which New Horizons flew by in 2019, contain the building blocks of the solar system. The New Horizons team has spent the last few years using very large ground-based telescopes to search for a third flyby target, for which the spacecraft has roughly as much fuel as for the Arrokoth flyby.

What sense does it make to throw away the chance to observe yet another KBO up close as well as many others from a distance?

Currently, there are no other missions to the Kuiper Belt — and none are even being planned. New Horizons is literally our only chance to explore this region of the solar system in situ for decades.

This proposal is not about money. The move would not save any money, replacing one team with another. Neither does it make scientific sense. It is a senseless step that wastes precious resources for no benefit.

New Horizons has had multiple scientific successes because of the hard work, dedication, and passion of its team. We should be rewarding these scientists and engineers, not throwing them away and forfeiting the chance to study this remote, fascinating region of the solar system for another five years.

Why hasn’t the space press reported on this senseless proposal? The public, who fund NASA, deserve to know that the agency is on the verge of making a wasteful, unnecessary move.

New Horizons thrilled children and adults around the world when it revealed the beauty and complexity of Pluto. Today, the public deserves to know that this mission faces premature termination for no reason. Space journalists around the world need to tell this story while there is still a chance of preventing this destructive move.

The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Spaceflight Insider


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

Reader Comments

Not necessarily, but hopefully so! Another great piece by Ms. Kornfeld. I wonder if The Planetary Society agrees. I wonder if the head of NASA has briefed President Biden so he can decide himself about this strange, inexplicable suggestion. It clearly is a power move, not a scientifically-informed move. Team NH seems to be shut out of the process. Something smells like Danish sardines here.

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