New Horizons: How Spacecraft Could Stay Powered for 20 More Years Beyond Pluto

PHOTO: Members of the media garbed in protective unforms view NASAs New Horizons spacecraft on Nov. 4, 2005 at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.PlayBruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Space Fans Await Photos From NASA's Pluto Flyby

New Horizons conserved energy by taking naps on its 3 billion mile journey to Pluto but the spacecraft isn't done yet and may have enough power for two more decades of exploration, according to NASA.

Traveling so far from the sun meant solar panels wouldn't provide enough power. Instead, NASA went nuclear, equipping the piano-sized probe with a battery that converts radiation from decaying plutonium into electricity.

New Horizons loses about a few watts of power each year, according to NASA, but is estimated to have as much as 20 years left in its life expectancy.

It 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.

New Horizons will also head deeper into the Kuiper Belt, an area beyond Pluto's orbit of the Sun 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," he said. "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. It later sent back the first high-resolution images of Pluto's surface.