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NASA May Change New Horizons Mission Objectives: What it Means for Future Planetary Exploration

NASA's Science Mission Directorate is considering turning the New Horizons spacecraft into a heliospheric science probe, which could result in a change of plans for the spacecraft, affecting future planetary exploration. The New Horizons spacecraft is currently flying through the Kuiper Belt, and the mission is still accomplishing its planned science goals in planetary exploration.


NASA's Proposed Changes to the New Horizons Mission


NASA is soliciting input on the possibility of using the New Horizons spacecraft as a heliospheric science probe much sooner than mission planners intended. The proposed change could stop further planned planetary exploration of objects in the distant regime of the solar system. The changes come as a surprise, as the spacecraft is still performing Kuiper Belt object observations and has recently received a good senior science review.


The Current Successes of the New Horizons Mission

The New Horizons mission has observed and characterized 36 Kuiper Belt objects and studied several dwarf planets. The data obtained from these observations is vital in calculating the shapes, orbits, and surface textures of these distant bodies, which could provide valuable insights into KBO formation mechanisms. The spacecraft is well-placed to capture views of Uranus and Neptune, which will be done in tandem with the Hubble Space Telescope. Additionally, New Horizons will continue its planned studies of the heliosphere and map the cosmic background in optical and ultraviolet light. In astrophysics, cosmology, and solar system sciences, there's plenty for the spacecraft to do.


The Search for the Next Target


Since the Arrokoth encounter, the New Horizons team has been hunting for another flyby target. The search uses enhanced equipment on ground-based telescopes and takes advantage of machine-learning AI software. The team is looking for an object along the New Horizons trajectory, and if found, they'll spool up planning for its observations.


NASA's Proposed Changes and Future Planetary Exploration


If the New Horizons mission is turned into a heliospheric science probe, it will affect future planetary exploration. The team may have to cut short their Kuiper Belt studies, which are crucial for understanding the formation and evolution of the solar system. The New Horizons spacecraft has already achieved significant milestones, such as the encounter with Pluto and Arrokoth, and it still has much to offer in terms of planetary exploration. NASA's decision will affect future missions, as the New Horizons mission is a critical resource for exploring the Kuiper Belt and other outer regions of the solar system.

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