A New World for New Horizons to Explore

The Kuiper Belt is a vast disk of icy debris left over from our Sun's formation 4.6 billion years ago. Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) are a unique class of solar-system body that has never been visited by interplanetary spacecraft. They contain well-preserved clues to the origin of our solar system. NASA's New Horizons probe will fly by Pluto in mid-2015 and then continue across the Kuiper Belt on its way toward interstellar space. The Hubble Space Telescope was used to do a deep sky survey to identify KBOs that the New Horizons spacecraft could potentially visit on its outbound trajectory. The deep sky survey was successful, and Hubble found targetable KBOs for New Horizons. NASA, ESA,SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team.

It seems that nearly everyone has heard about the New Horizons mission to the outer solar system. It has been "on the road" (so to speak) since its launch on January 19, 2006. The spacecraft reached Pluto on July 14, 2015 for a quick reconnaissance mission. It flew past the dwarf planet, cataloged a wealth of data about it and its moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra and its data are changing our perception of the outer solar system.

Its next stop is an exploration through the Kuiper Belt, which makes up part of the outer solar system. This is a very ambitious mission, and may well uncover secrets that will help explain what it was like when our solar system first formed. It already has a target, called 2014 MU69 and nicknamed "Ultima Thule", a tiny worldlet that is one of millions in the Kuiper Belt.

Mission Log

If  the New Horizons spacecraft could keep a diary, imagine what it would say to us. 

This is the mission log of the interplanetary, interstellar mission New Horizons. My mission is to study Pluto and its moons, and then seek out and map other new worlds of the Kuiper Belt. My position in space is just at the edge of the Kuiper Belt, outside the orbit of Neptune. I have passed Pluto and am on my way out of the solar system. My velocity is 58,536 kilometers per hour. 

My mission is now extended to at least one other world beyond Pluto. The Hubble Space Telescope focused on an area of space in the Kuiper Belt along my trajectory, and found three possible places for me to study after Pluto. The data for my target has already been uploaded to my memory banks and navigational computer. This new world, called a Kuiper Belt Object and named Ultima Thule by my mission controllers, lies 6.4 billion kilometers from the Sun. It has never been heated by the Sun and its materials date back more than 4.6 billion years, to a time when the solar system was first forming. 

It is possible that I could visit another Kuiper Belt Object beyond the one I'm already slated to fly past. If it is deemed suitable for study, its parameters will also be uploaded to my navigational systems. However, my mechanical systems will only last for so long, so new missions beyond my next target will have to be considered carefully to allow for my aging hardware to function. Eventually, my fuel source will die out, and I will wander out to the stars on a one-way trajectory to the unknown. My mission officially ends in the year 2026.

As I have now entered the Kuiper Belt, I have reviewed what is known about this region and its objects. Astronomers often call it the "frontier" of the solar system. UIntil my arrival here, this region has never been visited by any spacecraft. The objects out here contain ancient ices and other materials. I hope to return useful material about these objects using my cameras, spectrometers, radio experiments, and dust counter. Everything I encounter will provide more information about these objects and give insight into what conditions were like when they first formed as the Sun and planets coalesced. 

Pluto is a dwarf planet, and is often referred to as the "King" of the Kuiper Belt because it was the first large object to be discovered in the Belt. It too, contains primordial ices and other materials, as well as an atmosphere and a collection of moons. Are other worlds like Pluto hiding out here? If so, where are they? What are they like? Those are all questions a future mission like me will have to answer. 

I will await further instructions as to my extended mission to bring humanity's attention to the most distant reaches of the solar system, and beyond. Now that I have focused on Pluto, and explored a tiny world called Ultima Thule, I am headed outwards, for more discoveries.