NEW YORK, July 16, 2015 (MAMOSA Report) — New Horizons spacecraft isn’t done yet and may have enough power for two more decades of exploration, according to NASA.
According to NASA, New Horizons conserved energy by taking naps on its 3 billion mile journey to Pluto.
Traveling so far from the sun meant its solar panels wouldn’t provide enough power. Instead, NASA went nuclear, equipping the piano-sized probe with a battery that converts radiation from decaying plutonium into electricity.
According to NASA, New Horizons loses about a few watts of power each year, but is estimated to have as much as 20 years left in its life expectancy.
It will spend the next 16 months transmitting data back to Earth from its encounter with Pluto, with the information being categorized by low, medium and high priority. It will likely make its last transmission in October or November of next year, officials said.
New Horizons will also head deeper into the Kuiper Belt, an area beyond Pluto’s orbit of the Sun that is the largest structure in the planetary system, with more than 100,000 miniature worlds ripe for exploration, said NASA.
After the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons would then have the chance to go further, according to NASA’s principal investigator Alan Stern, “to explore the deep reaches of the heliosphere,” an area extending far beyond the orbit of Pluto.
“Eventually, we’ll get to a point where we can’t operate the primary spacecraft computer and the communications system. We’ve estimated that that point will be reached sometime in the mid-2030s, roughly 20 years from now,” he said. “Over those next 20 years, if a spacecraft continues to be healthy, it could operate and return scientific data.”
Launched in January 2006 on a 3 billion mile journey to Pluto, New Horizons “phoned home” on Tuesday night, indicating that it had successfully navigated just 7,700 miles from the dwarf planet Tuesday morning. It later sent back the first up-close high-resolution images of Pluto’s surface.
One image, shot near icy Pluto’s terminator…or dividing like between its day and night sides, shows mountains estimated to be 11,000 feet high. The spectra obtained by the Ralph instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft reveal methane ice on the frozen surface of Pluto.
Icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon, are among the several discoveries announced Wednesday by Nasa’s New Horizons team, just one day after the spacecraft’s first ever Pluto flyby. We can expect more photos to be released by NASA in the coming days.