A maverick group of astronomers is proposing to radically reshape one of NASA’s most successful missions in the modern era, the New Horizons probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 and is now continuing its voyage into the depths of the outer solar system. The group suggests that before its fuel is spent and some of the systems are shut down to conserve power, New Horizons should be re-purposed as a space telescope that can take advantage of the near-lightless conditions in the outer solar system to study stars, galaxies and more.
According to the paper’s lead author Michael Zemcov, an astrophysicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the idea is largely meant to “catalyze the discussion.” At the very least, reports John Wenz in today’s Scientific American, some members of the New Horizons team approached him to try to incorporate the idea into an upcoming mission review. (Only one of the paper’s co-authors is part of the New Horizons mission.
The plan calls for utilizing the Pluto probe’s eight-inch telescope, called the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), to peer at distant, dim objects beyond the solar system’s boundaries. LORRI, the group says, could be used to support NASA’s upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a planet-hunting space telescope launching in April.
Co-author Diana Dragomir, an MIT planetary scientist who works on TESS, says this mission will need all the backup help it can get. That is because it is set to find tens of thousands of candidate planets—many of which will require time-consuming independent confirmation using other telescopes.
“The further you get out of the solar system, the more you can do these kind of observations,” says Michele Bannister, a planetary scientist at Queen’s University Belfast who was not involved in the study. She points out one NASA spacecraft—Deep Impact, which studied Comet Tempel 1 in 2005—was later retooled into a new mission dubbed “EPOXI” in order to assist with exoplanet hunts.
“It’s really an issue of logistics and timing, and making sure the resources are available and we’re doing nothing to put the mission at risk,” Zemcov says. Convincing others there’s no risk involved may be a tall order, however.
New Horizon’s extended mission after Pluto involves flying by an ancient remnant from the solar system’s birth, a chunk of rock and ice known as 2014 MU69. After that encounter, the craft will transmit its data to Earth—which, due to the immense distances, will take about two years to completely trickle back home.
After MU69 the craft will be low on propellant—less than a quarter of a tank. That could be enough to pursue a third flyby target during a second mission extension, as many senior New Horizons team members would prefer. But that encounter—plus keeping the spacecraft pointed at Earth for the subsequent data transmission—would probably use most if not all of the remaining fuel.
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"Near-Lightless World of the Outer Solar System" –Astronomers Propose to Retool NASA's New Horizons Mission as a Space Telescope