Although NASA’s probe will not reach Pluto for a historic flyby until next year, the space agency is already thinking about where the probe will go next.
NASA is planning on using its Hubble Space Telescope to look for another object that the space probe, called New Horizons, could take pictures of. The space agency wants to find a “Kuiper Belt object (KBO) for the outbound spacecraft to visit.” The Kuiper Belt consists of icy debris that has been left over from the solar system’s formation which occurred 4.6 billion years ago.
A KBO has currently never been seen before. The belt is incredibly far from the sun, and stretches out into areas that have not yet been visited by a NASA probe.
The Hubble Space Telescope could help identify these areas, so that the probe could plot a way to reach them.
“I am pleased that our science peer-review process arrived at a consensus as to how to effectively use Hubble’s unique capabilities to support the science goals of the New Horizons mission,” said Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.
“The planned search for a suitable target for New Horizons further demonstrates how Hubble is effectively being used to support humankind’s initial reconnaissance of the solar system,” he added.
NASA is planning on carrying out a test observation. They will scan an area of the sky in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius in hopes of pinpointing objects in the Kuiper Belt. The Hubble Space Telescope will then be turned at the same rate that KBOs are suspected to move at. This will hopefully result in a streaked sky, but with the KBO seen as a pinpointed object.
The test needs to be able to identify at least two KBOs of a specific brightness in order for NASA to have a chance of finding a KBO for the probe to visit. NASA has expressed the difficulty of the task, saying that “finding a KBO is a challenging needle-in-haystack search.”
New Horizons was launched in 2006 with the goal of giving humanity a better glimpse of Pluto. The Hubble Space Telescope has already helped out with that goal by pinpointing Pluto’s moons, and it will no doubt be able to play a major role in the future goals of New Horizons.