Quaoar (pronounced kwa-whar) was discovered in 2002 and has not officially been designated a dwarf planet, but it almost certainly qualifies, researchers have said. Dwarf planets need to be massive enough to be shaped into a sphere by their own gravity; with a diameter of 690 miles, Quaoar is larger than the officially recognized dwarf planet Ceres.
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Quaoar lies an average of 43 astronomical units (AU) from the sun and completes one lap around the star every 286 Earth years. (One AU is the average distance from Earth to the sun - about 93 million miles, or 150 million km.) The object has one known moon.
The newly released images also show a number of background stars and two galaxies, known as IC 1048 and UGC 09485, both of which are about 370 billion times farther from New Horizons than Quaoar is, agency officials added.
As the Quaoar observations show, New Horizons' work did not end with the Pluto encounter. On Jan. 1, 2019, the probe will fly by an object called 2014 MU69, which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto.
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The 2014 MU69 flyby, which is the centerpiece of a mission extension approved by NASA last month, should help researchers better understand the diversity of objects in the Kuiper Belt, the large, frigid realm beyond Neptune's orbit. (At an estimated 13 to 25 miles, or 21 to 40 km, wide, 2014 MU69 is very different from Pluto, which measures 1,473 miles, or 2,370 km, across.)
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