Pluto Probe Spies Object Lurking in the Kuiper Belt

Although Pluto is a distant memory to NASA's New Horizons mission, which flew past the dwarf planet in July, it doesn't mean its voyage of discovery is over.

Although Pluto is a distant memory to NASA's New Horizons mission, which flew past the dwarf planet in July, it doesn't mean its voyage of discovery is over.

As shown in this short animation of 4 observations made by the spacecraft, a mysterious object can be seen drifting in front of distant stars. This is a Kuiper Belt Object, or KBO, and it is the closest we've ever seen such an object that lives in this outer region of our solar system.

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After shooting through the Pluto system on July 14, New Horizons dove straight into the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Pluto that is known to be populated with frozen debris from the solar system's early formation.

On Nov. 2, mission operators commanded the probe to look in the direction of 1994 JR1, a small 90-mile (150 kilometer) wide object, grabbing this series of images an hour apart. Although JR1 orbits the sun at a distance of 3.3 billion miles (5.3 billion miles), New Horizons was only 170 million miles (280 million kilometers) away, making this the closest observation of a mysterious KBO.

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It is hoped that New Horizons will be given enough funds to extend its mission far beyond the Pluto encounter so further observations of KBOs can be made.

After recently making some minor course corrections, New Horizons is now on course to rendezvous with recently-discovered KBO 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. So all going well, the tenacious space robot will make a second flyby of an outer solar system object deep inside the Kuiper Belt in a little over 3 years time... if funding is approved.

Source: New Horizons mission site

New Horizons image of 1994 JR1, taken Nov. 2, is the closest-ever picture of a Kuiper Belt object.

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