A New Horizons scientist has said he is sure the mission will be extended by Nasa on the back of the data the spacecraft will return following its flyby of Pluto.
Mihaly Horanyi, from CU Boulder, is principal investigator on the Student Dust Counter (SDC) on board New Horizons – one of seven instruments collecting data from the dwarf planet and its moons.
New Horizons was launched in 2006 and has since travelled over three billion miles to get to its primary destination.
The SDC is a thin plastic film resting on an aluminium structure the size of a cake pan. It is mounted on the outside of the spacecraft and a small electronic box inside New Horizons assesses each individual dust particle that strikes the instrument. The main goals of the SDC are to map the dust density and size distribution, as well as working out how fast the Kuiper Belt produces dust.
Speaking to IBTimes UK ahead of the flyby, Horanyi said there is huge excitement at the New Horizons headquarters. He said: "Hopefully everything is going to go well and we'll see Pluto in beautiful high resolution.
"I'm not sure anybody will be able to get to sleep. It's like being back in college before exams. I don't know how it's going to go but it's very exciting. At this point there is nothing that can be done."
New Horizons suffered a glitch at the start of July, which was promptly fixed by scientists. "That was stressful," Horanyi said. "Giving instructions for something that far away is difficult and time consuming. There are some incredible folks here and they put it back to life and on conditions for the encounter. Maybe it's just nature's way to maximise excitement."
Horanyi said they do not expect to have any data from the SDC until around 20 July. Once this begins to be fed back, it will be used in conjunction with measurements from other instruments to better understand Pluto and its moons. "One measurement helps to understand the other. You will learn a lot more by putting it into context and seeing what other instruments are doing," he said.
However, he said it is difficult to say what to expect from the mission regarding the amount of dust and what it will tell us. Horanyi said: "Is there a cloud? Are there rings in the system? If we knew we wouldn't go."
As New Horizons goes past Pluto, we will get clearer images of the planet – so clear that if we were looking at Central Park in New York from the same distance, you would be able to see ponds.
Following the close encounter, scientists working on the mission are hoping to continue on further into the Kuiper belt. However, this will depend on Nasa and if the mission has met its primary goals, Horanyi said.
He added: "The mission is organised in terms of primary goals. Get to Pluto and deliver the science. Then Nasa has to make a decision about extending the mission. If its good enough it could go on – and I'm sure it is. But we have to put the goods on the table. We have to deliver what the primary mission goals were."
Regardless of whether New Horizons is extended, Horanyi said we will be learning about Pluto from the data returned for years to come.