When we saw the picture above, I let Chase know that when I was his age (5), Pluto was still a planet, but it was just a far away and lonely dot. The best we could see what a dim smudge on a photographic plate. Now, it’s like a thing, with features. I am not a planetary scientist, but I can be 5 years old again and this is really cool.
Chase asked how long New Horizons would be at Pluto and I told him it wasn’t stopping and would keep going. Predictably, he asked where it would go next and I didn’t know. I know it’s on a solar escape trajectory, meaning it is leaving the Solar System at some point, but beyond that, Google was my friend. So this is what I learned:
- The science team wants to find another object to visit, but it has to be along the flight paths New Horizons can take.
- New Horizons won’t have a lot of fuel post-Pluto, so it won’t be able to steer very much.
- Even though its momentum will keep it going, the object has to be relatively close in, since New Horizons will also be running low on power relatively soon.
Well, that’s all good, but where is it really going? Where can we find it in 1000 years? Will it bump into V’ger?
So if the RTG on New Horizons functions as expected, it will run out of power in 2026, and that will be the end of that. By 2038, it will be 100 AU (100 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) in 2038. But we really don’t know yet where it will end up.
This goes back to the steering question. New Horizons does not have a lot of fuel, but it has enough to change its final destination by a lot. So when NASA’s operators figure how where they go after Pluto, then we will know which direction New Horizons is heading. However, we know where four other interstellar probes are going.
Image by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.