Sometimes deep space probes burn out and sometimes they fade away. But a remarkable percentage of them just keep on trucking, cosmically speaking.
Case in point: NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which executed its historic Pluto flyby this time last year, is embarking on a new mission. Using the extra hydrazine fuel it has left onboard, the probe is heading into the Kuiper Belt to do some bonus science.
Julian Huguet has the lowdown in today's DNews report, in which we consider the twilight years, so to speak, of New Horizons and other space probes.
New Horizons completed its primary mission last year and continues to send back images and data from the Pluto flyby. But since the probe is still working fine -- and since it cost $700 million -- NASA is sending the probe out to a chuck of floating solar system debris called Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. Objects in the Kuiper Belt can help us to understand the origins of our solar system.
Some numbers: New Horizons will fly to within 1,900 miles of MU29, which is four times closer than it got to Pluto. MU69 is between 13 and 25 miles wide, which is about 500,000 times less massive than Pluto. And it's about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto's orbit, which is a long way to go.
RELATED: Pluto and Charon Dazzle in New Horizons Portrait
As such, New Horizons won't arrive until 2019, a full 13 years after the probe was launched. But Horizons is just a kid compared to some other NASA missions. The Pioneer 6 space probe, launched in 1965, is still soaring through space and possibly still operational, according to NASA analysts. Pioneer 10 lasted 30 years before contact was lost in 2003.
NASA's longest running missions, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched in 1977 and still communicate with Earth via NASA's Deep Space Network. A big part of the reason we still hear back from them is subsequent advancements in receiver technology. We can still pick up their transmissions, even though they're a billionth of a billionth of a watt by the time they reach us.
In addition to its probes, NASA's rovers are also outlasting expectations. Opportunity, which landed on Mars 12 years ago, is still up there doing science. NASA has even figured out ways to get value out of a probe's fiery death, which you can learn about here.
-- Glenn McDonald
Forbes: How Do New Horizons Costs Compare To Other Space Missions?
NASA: New Horizons: The First Mission to the Pluto System and the Kuiper Belt
Planetary: Finally! New Horizons has a Second Target