After the successful exploration of the Pluto system by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, the American space agency is now conducting a probe of the Kuiper belt located just beyond the dwarf planet.
The New Horizons mission has led the way to new scientific discoveries about Pluto, including the latest close up images of the dwarf planet, a survey of its icy surface and even new data on its moon Charon.
NASA scientists now have their sights on the region of the solar system known as the Kuiper belt. The area features elements much like an asteroid belt, where space debris can be found in abundance. The New Horizons team plans to focus its studies in this particular region for the next few years, or until the space probe finally uses up all of its fuel supply.
"We have a chance to go further and explore the deep reaches of the heliosphere, like Voyager did, and to do that with much more modern instruments," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said.
"Hopefully [it will] return data that will really add to the storehouse of what we know about our environment in the solar system."
The New Horizons spacecraft, however, is set to be joined by four other spacecraft sent into space several decades ago. These are the Voyager 1, the Voyager 2, the Pioneer 10 and the Pioneer 11. These space probes are now on their way into the farthest regions of the solar system.
The Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972 to survey Jupiter and its final signal to Earth was sent back in 2003. The Pioneer 11, on the other hand, was sent to space a year after the Pioneer 10 to survey Saturn. Its final contact with NASA was made in 1995.
The Voyager space probes both left Earth in 1977.
According to NASA, both Pioneer spacecraft have already been decommissioned, but the Voyagers still continue to transmit signals to the agency's space station. The space probes, however, are quickly losing their power.
NASA representative Randii Wessen said that they are gradually deactivating operations related to the Voyager missions, except those for key systems, in order to reduce power usage. They believe both space probes will lose their power by 2020 to 2025.
Just like the earlier space probes, the New Horizons spacecraft will eventually drift off and lose communication with NASA once it expends all of its power. The space agency said it will be considered as an ambassador of Earth from the point on.