Wait a minute!
Image credit: Barbara David

The highly productive NASA New Horizons mission is on “extended leave” after departing Earth in January 2006 – and the agency is now considering a new assignment for the nuclear-powered craft after over 6,267 days in space.

New Horizons was built by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratotry.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben/Alex Parker

New Horizons zoomed past Pluto and its moons in July 2015, before conducting the first reconnaissance of a Kuiper Belt object (KBO), Arrokoth, on New Year’s 2019.

With the completion of the New Horizons prime mission to Pluto, and its extended mission to Arrokoth, mission operations of the spacecraft would be terminated at the end of its second extended mission at the end of fiscal year 2024 (FY24).

Pluto flyby of New Horizons continues to offer a scientific bounty of new findings.
Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/SwRI/James Tuttle Keane

“However, it is in the best interest of NASA, the New Horizons mission, the scientific community, and the American taxpayer for the New Horizons mission to continue operations and utilize its unique position in the solar system to answer important questions about our heliosphere and its interaction with the interstellar medium, while allowing for scientific opportunities that present themselves beyond Heliophysics.”

That’s the word from a just-issued NASA Request for Information regarding a New Horizons Interstellar Mission (NIHM).

Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) Arrokoth as viewed by New Horizons.
Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/SwRI

Level of interest

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is exploring whether interested science teams have a set of science objectives to propose to the space agency for use of the mission beyond FY24.

The Request for Information (RFI) issued on March 15 is designed to gauge the level of interest of the wider science community in pursuing the next phase of science leadership for the mission, and to estimate appropriate annual costs.

That RFI seeks to define three years of science goals for a new mission concept utilizing the New Horizons observatory, including the definition of operations modes of the spacecraft and its instruments to address these science goals. The New Horizons mission carries seven scientific instruments.

The RFI emphasizes that NASA is obtaining information for planning purposes only, and the Government does not intend to award a contract at this time.

All responses to the RFI must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on April 17, 2023.

By continuing the New Horizons mission operations and utilizing its unique position in the Solar System, important questions can be answered about the heliosphere and its interaction with the interstellar medium “while allowing for scientific opportunities that present themselves beyond Heliophysics,” the RFI adds.

Scientific leadership

While on the face of it, the RFI is welcomed news for deep diving space exploration. But there seems to be a bit of disconcerting news too.

“The solicitation may allow teams and/or organizations to propose for scientific leadership of a New Horizons Interstellar Mission.” In non-NASA speak, what appears to be afoot is the disbanding of the current New Horizons science team that scored over the years milestone-making observations by the spacecraft – a group shaped by some 20 years of work to assure the scientific output from the probe.

As noted in the RFI: “It is expected that spacecraft operations will continue to be conducted by the existing operations team.”

So as New Horizons continues to fly outward, those bureaucratic wheels of space science at NASA are likely to hit a speed bump within certain scientific community circles. 

Stay tuned!

For a look at the RFI, go to: https://go.nasa.gov/NewH23IMRFI

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