With its primary mission far behind, NASA's New Horizons is getting used to its new role as humanity's deep space emissary.
The probe buzzed Pluto and its system of moons on July 14, 2015, providing us with an unprecedented and stunning view of the dwarf planet. But with Pluto now millions of miles in New Horizons' rear view mirror, it's looking forward to another encounter, with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called 2014 MU69, in 2019.
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Along the way, however, the spacecraft isn't being idle, it's doing science and, as the only mission that has ever explored the Kuiper Belt, has made a second observation of a distant KBO called 1994 JR1, refining its position to a high precision.
Using its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), New Horizons in April imaged 1994 JR1 from a distance of around 69 million miles. This is the second time the mission has checked in on the 90 mile wide object; the first was in November 2015 when New Horizons was 170 million miles away. These are the closest ever astronomical images of a KBO.
"Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO," said New Horizons science team member Simon Porter, of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colo.
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These observations are valuable as it helps scientists understand where the object came from. There has been some speculation that 1994 JR1 was once a quasi-satellite of Pluto. These new observations immediately dispel this idea.
Interestingly, using this series of observations, astronomers have been able to deduce the rate of the object's spin - and it's spinning fast. By monitoring the slight brightening and dimming of 1994 JR1, which corresponds to brightness changes on the object's surface as it rotates, it is spinning at a rate of once every 5.4 hours, which is "relatively fast" for a KBO, said New Horizons' John Spencer, also from SwRI.
"This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before," he added.
It is hoped that, during its extended mission deep into the Kuiper belt, New Horizons might be able to make similar measurements of another 20 KBOs.
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Having a robotic mission in the frozen badlands of the solar system is a historic opportunity. The Kuiper belt is the ancient shattered remains of our solar system's youth. By studying Pluto, its moons and the mysterious objects deep inside the Kuiper belt, we're turning back the pages of our star system's history books, giving us a privileged look into how the planets came to form and under what conditions our young sun grew up in.