Tally-Ho on Targets for New Horizons After Pluto
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have located at least one and possibly three Kuiper Belt objects that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft can reach after its flyby Pluto next year. Continue reading →
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have located at least one and possibly three Kuiper Belt objects that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft can reach after its flyby Pluto next year.
"After years of searching, my team and I have found a world in the Kuiper Belt for New Horizons to visit after Pluto!," astronomer Alex Parker, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., posted on Twitter.
"In fact, we may have up to three Kuiper Belt Objects to choose from, but the other two require further follow-up to confirm," he wrote.
The best target, known as "Potential Target 1," is in a near-circular orbit around the sun and flying 44 times as far from the sun as Earth. The object is "several tens of kilometers," in diameter, Parker noted.
"The two other (potential targets) are brighter (hence, larger) objects, so if they are confirmed targetable, they may beat PT1 in the final selection," he wrote.
New Horizons is expected to become the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto, which was still considered a planet when the spacecraft launched in 2006. Pluto is now referred to as a "dwarf planet" and the largest of thousands of frozen bodies located in the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune's orbit.
KBOs are believed to be pristine remnants dating back to the birth of the solar system and the building blocks of dwarf planets like Pluto.
The KBOs Hubble found are each about 10 times larger than typical comets, but only about 1-2 percent of the size of Pluto, NASA noted in a press release.
Finding an object beyond Pluto that New Horizons could reach required a dedicated search with Hubble.
"We started to get worried that we could not find anything suitable, even with Hubble, but in the end the space telescope came to the rescue," astronomer John Spencer, also with the Southwest Research Institute, said in a statement. "There was a huge sigh of relief when we found suitable KBOs."
One sobering note, added Parker: "Even though New Horizons can reach this Kuiper Belt Object, there is no guarantee of an extended mission ... Until that approval happens, the in-situ exploration of a pristine classical Kuiper Belt object is still not a sure thing."
Artist’s impression of a Kuiper Belt Object 4 billion miles from the sun.
This week is
, so to celebrate I have put together a top 10 gallery of space photographs -- snapped by humans
our robotic explorers -- that have been featured on Discovery News over the past 12 months. This selection is based on the photograph's scientific, social and artistic impact, weighed against their popularity on the site (and, exercising my editorial powers, personal preference). This is by no means an exhaustive list and represents only the tip of the amazing space photo iceberg. Do you think more 'worthy' photographs needed mentioning? Feel free to send me your suggestions in the comments below and we might have enough material for a Discovery News readers' choice gallery.
To kick off, we turn to the the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile that captured a stunning deep space view of two dramatic star formation regions in the southern Milky Way in August. The first of these, on the left, is dominated by the star cluster NGC 3603, located about 20,000 light-years away, in the Carina–Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The second object, on the right, is a collection of glowing gas clouds known as NGC 3576 that lies only about half as far from Earth.
In May, shortly after arriving at the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 40/41, NASA astronaut and flight engineer Reid Wiseman snapped this photo of a die floating in front of one of the windows in the Cupola of the orbiting outpost. The playful juxtaposition of an everyday object floating above the Earth's limb was too hard to ignore.
This fascinating image, captured by the ever-impressive High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, may not be the most colorful view of the Martian surface, but in it is a great example of the dynamic Martian geology and a wonderful stroke of luck. In the August observation, a boulder became dislodged from a Martian slope (in one of the planet's many chaos regions), then rolled and bounced its way down. But this isn’t any regular boulder; after studying the rock's imprints and the angle of the shadow, HiRISE scientists realized that it's a misshapen stone, approximately the same size as one of Stonehenge's standing stones. If we ever send a manned mission to Mars, this would be a very strange sight, but aliens didn't push the stone upright -- Mars gravity and pure luck were the only things needed.
In November 2013, International Space Station astronauts were treated to a mini fireworks show, courtesy of a reentering cargo spaceship. After undocking from the station, the European Automated Transfer Vehicle "Albert Einstein" (ATV-4) began five days of orbital maneuvers before reentry on Nov. 2. The unmanned cargo vehicle had been docked to the space station for five months after delivering seven tons of food, supplies and equipment to the orbiting outpost in June. Filled with trash and unwanted equipment, the ATV became a high-tech waste disposal system as it began its reentry procedure. With a steady hand and telephoto camera lens, astronauts were able to watch the ATV burn up and disintegrate in the atmosphere far below.
This thick cloud of dust and gas may look like a dark and foreboding corner of our galaxy, but it is actually a region of star birth that exhibits a smorgasbord of stellar phenomena. Imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, this striking nebula is forming new stars. The bright object near the bottom is a reflection nebula filled with newborn stars, whereas the strange pillar is created by an emerging young star blasting powerful stellar winds.
As part of the comprehensive armada of solar observatories, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is the best at capturing high-definition views of our nearest star. Its unblinking eye has captured countless flares, coronal mass ejections and coronal loops in dazzling clarity, re-opening our eyes to our dynamic sun and helping us better understand the roots of space weather. Every image is a masterpiece, so I've selected the SDO for a special shout-out.
Seeing an aurora erupt overhead is a sight to behold. The dynamic streamers generated by solar wind plasma rushing through the upper atmosphere at high latitudes produce our planet's most beautiful natural light show. But when viewed from above, in low-Earth orbit, the space station crew gain a whole new, and visually stunning, perspective on solar storms. In late August and early September, space station astronauts and cosmonauts were treated to an uptick in auroral activity after a series of coronal mass ejections washed over our planet.
After arriving at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August, the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission began an aggressive campaign of observations, capturing striking imagery of the cometary nucleus. From these observations, mission scientists have now identified where an attached robotic lander will make its historic landing. When the Philae lander turned on one of its cameras when the mission was orbiting the comet at a distance of only 50 kilometers (31 miles), this robotic "selfie" was the result. The comet hangs in the background with Rosetta's solar array in shot. There are many more higher resolution views of Churyumov–Gerasimenko, but this one seems to put the mission in perspective.
NASA's Cassini mission continues to capture mindblowing images of Saturn, its majestic rings, system of moons and the fascinating planetary phenomena associated with all. After 10 years of exploring the gas giant, each observation beamed back to Earth seems to transform our understanding about the solar system's most famous world. But one observation of a certain Saturnian moon is as beautiful as it is scientifically astounding. Zooming in on the 'tiger stripes' region of Enceladus, Cassini's cameras were able to discern over a hundred individual geysers blasting through fissures in the icy crust. Through extensive analysis of these fissures and their heat signatures, mission scientists were able to draw the conclusion that, like its larger Jovian moon Europa, Enceladus is also likely an ocean moon, with liquid water trapped below a cracked icy shell.
As soon as India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) entered orbit around the Red Planet it started snapping the Martian surface and atmosphere, showing the world that we have yet another ace robotic photographer orbiting the planet. The mission has, so far, returned some top-notch images of the planet's surface and its atmosphere. Also, using the spacecraft's highly elliptical orbit to its advantage, this striking global view of Mars was acquired producing the mission's first weather forecast: there was a dust storm brewing. This is a stunning achievement for India's first foray into Martian orbit.
In this scene, NASA rover Curiosity appears to be concentrating hard on a rock of interest that it has cleaned with its robotic arm-mounted Dust Abrasion Tool. This beautiful selfie was assembled from a collection of photos from the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on sol 613 (April 28) of the mission. Curiosity's selfies not only produce some breathtaking scenes, they are also used by mission engineers to keep tabs on the condition of the rover the more time it is exposed to the harsh Martian environment. This photograph is only one of many thousands of stunning photos being sent back from Mars by Curiosity, a champion of high-resolution photography in the barren, and very alien, Martian surface.