Laurel, MD – Even when the NASA spacecraft "New Horizon" descends on an object in the Kayperov Kayper, the mission team is already considering a second potential flight to the 2020s.
The new horizons will fly to 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, on January 1, bringing its closest approach to about 3,500 kilometers at 12:33 am Eastern time. The spacecraft will not be in contact with the Earth during the closest approach, but a few hours later it will transmit an outburst of "health and safety data", arriving at Earth at 10:29 am in the east.
Ultima Thule's space is in line with the plan, officials said on December 31st. "The spacecraft is on its way, it's healthy, it's observing while we're talking," said Alan Stern, chief researcher for New Horizons, during a press conference at Johns Hopkins University for Applied Physics Laboratories here December 31.
While the close focus of the mission is the flying of Ultima Tule, project officials began to think about the possibility of sending new horizons over yet another undiscovered object in the Kuiper peak, based on the projected levels of power from the spacecraft radioisotope thermoelectric generator and hydrazine fuel for maneuvering.
"We have the power and fuel to run this bird in the mid-2030s, maybe longer," Stern said at a briefing on December 28th. "What the science team and mission team want to do after we get all the data from Ultima is to propose to NASA to explore the outer parts of the Kuiper belt."
One issue is finding a potential object on the Kuiper Belt for New Horizon to fly. The discovery of Ultima Thule demanded a concentrated effort using the Hubble Space Telescope, discovered by astronomers in 2014. Only Hubble and New Horizons saw the building.
"To ask for it, we will use every tool as possible," Stern said on December 30 to find another Kuiper belt object in the reach of New Horizons. It includes a large telescope with basics, Hubble and the future cosmic telescope James Webb, he said.
It also includes new horizons, using a spacecraft instrument called the long-range performance, or LORRI. Stern noticed that LORRY first saw Ultima Tule in August, at a distance of more than 160 million kilometers. The camera could see the object at an even greater distance, he noted. "We can use that camera to look for other objects that cross our way at a distance," he said.
But it will require new ways to use the camera. Hal Viver, a new horizon project scientist, said that changes in flight software could allow LORRI to download hundreds of images and then combine them, restoring only the combined image.
"The big bottleneck can send data back," he said, given the low bandwidth available on Earth's extreme distance. "We can not take thousands of pictures and send them all back."
That concept, added Weaver, is still in the drawing-board stage of development. "We must now focus on Ultima Tule," he said. "But right after the flight, we will jump to this problem."
While the flight of Ultima Tule was planned for several years in advance, a future overflow could take place only a few months if the subject discovered LAORI. "It can be seen only about six months ahead of us," Stern said. "What you need to do is build a general flight mode and make a flight warning if we detect it from the spacecraft board."
The project will also have to force NASA to approve another extended mission for the spacecraft. The new horizons are currently working on an expanded mission for Ultima Thule, which runs through 2021, for $ 81 million. It is in addition to the $ 720 million price tag for New Horizons' main mission for flying from Pluto, which lasted until 2017.
Stern said the project would prepare a proposal for another expanded mission in mid-2020 for the next high-profile planetary scientific missions. The work on that proposal, he said, is likely to begin in mid-2019. "I'm not worried about the weather crisis," he said, as "New Horizons" will be in Kuiper's belt most likely by the end of the 2020s and will be operational even longer.
But, first, he noted, is the flight of Ultima Tule. "I was trying to keep people thinking about it," he said of the second flight "and focus on Ultima".