New Horizons’ Pluto mission now has three new targets for its work in the distant reaches of our solar system. “This has been a very challenging search, and it’s great that in the end Hubble could accomplish a detection — one NASA mission helping another,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement issued to the press.
NASA’s Hubble telescope, through a dedicated observing program overseen by a New Horizons search team, has discovered three Kuiper Belt objects that the New Horizons spacecraft could possibly visit after it passes Pluto in July. University of Colorado professor Fran Bagenal is a co-investigator, and the spacecraft carries an instrument known as the Student Dust Counter, designed and built by CU undergraduate and graduate students. “The problem is that we wanted to go somewhere after Pluto, to compare Pluto with another object,” Bagenal said. “If we hadn’t been able to find a target (beyond Pluto), we’d be sailing off into nothingness,” Stern said.
New Horizons, which launched from Florida in 2006, is scheduled to have its closest brush with Pluto on July 14, when it will cruise past at about 27,000 mph, within just 6,000 miles of its surface. The $700 million New Horizons mission launched in 2006 with the primary goal of returning the first-ever up-close looks at Pluto and its moons. But Stern and his colleagues have always wanted the probe to fly by another object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of frigid bodies beyond Neptune.
An additional flyby would increase researchers’ knowledge of the mysterious Kuiper Belt, mission team members say. Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) have never been “heat-treated” by the sun, so they’re viewed as relatively pristine building blocks left over from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago.