— -- After flying by Pluto, the work isn't over yet for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.
The piano-sized probe will spend the next 16 months transmitting data from back to Earth from its encounter with Pluto, with the information being categorized by low, medium and high priority. It will likely make its last transmission in October or November of next year, officials said.
Pluto and its moons aren't the last objects New Horizons will explore. While the spacecraft loses about a few watts of power each year, it still has plenty of power left, giving it the potential to explore for 20 more years.
If all goes according to plan, the probe will head deeper into the Kuiper Belt, an area that is the largest structure in the planetary system, with more than 100,000 miniature worlds ripe for exploration, according to NASA.
After the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons would then have the chance to go further, according to principal investigator Alan Stern, "to explore the deep reaches of the heliosphere," an area extending far beyond the orbit of Pluto.
"Eventually, we’ll get to a point where we can’t operate the primary spacecraft computer and the communications system. We’ve estimated that that point will be reached sometime in the mid 2030s, roughly 20 years from now," Stern said at a news conference on Tuesday. "Over those next 20 years, if a spacecraft continues to be healthy, it could operate and return scientific data."
Launched in January 2006 on a 3 billion mile journey to Pluto, New Horizons "phoned home" on Tuesday night, indicating that it had successfully navigated just 7,700 miles from the dwarf planet Tuesday morning, NASA said.