It will provide the first direct observation ever of the controversial planet and its main moon Charon. Together with providing a definitive answer about its true nature (is it a planet or not?), the presence of an atmosphere and even of a prehistoric, underground ocean.
“By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity.” Alyssa Rhoden of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
New Horizons Spacecraft Halfway to Pluto
“Although we still have a little more than 300 million miles and a year to go, the mileage and time already traveled account for nearly 90 percent of the total journey – so we are truly in the last stages of the cruise from Earth to the solar system’s vast unexplored frontier!” – Alan Stern, PI of the New Horizon Project
The cost to reach the TNOs, according to some estimates by the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, will be around $800 million, with some cheaper alternatives. It is evident that the cost-benefit of these kinds of missions toward the Kuiper Belt will have to be carefully evaluated, especially considered the dwindling funds available for space missions overall. With the kind of budget allocated in 2015, a Chiron mission might be pulled from the list, replaced by adventures to nearer and more affordable targets.
New Horizons will be a key factor in making this kind of decision. After exploring Pluto, the spacecraft will keep up its investigation of other TNOs, including Chiron, shedding some lights on the far end of the solar system.