Science

New Horizons Images First Object Beyond Pluto

While the New Horizons spacecraft shifts its mission to “beyond Pluto” the spacecraft has provided its first imaging of an object past the orbit of the former planet. The object in question is a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) measuring roughly 90 miles in diameter.

New Horizons Images First Object Beyond Pluto

After 10 years, we now know more about what lies beyond the former “ninth planet.”

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in in 2006 and arrived at in the neighborhood of the frozen “dwarf planet” a little less than a year ago as it continues its trip beyond Pluto.

The spacecraft first imaged the KBO named 1994 JR1 at a distance of 170 million miles but added 20 photographs on April 7 and April 8 from a distance of just shy of 70 million miles. 1994 JR1 orbits the sun presently at a distance of over three billion miles.

“Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO,” said Simon Porter, a member of a team investigating the imaging from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

The latest photos show that not only is the KBO not a satellite of Pluto but shows a rapid full-rotation that takes less than five-and-a-half hours to complete.

While the New Horizons spacecraft may have gotten Pluto demoted from its planetary status as it neared that decision was made by a group that didn’t need its help.

Beginning in July last year, New Horizons began its intensive studies of the former planet and its five satellites. The spacecraft’s arrival certainly puts it near the top of the list in scientific accomplishments of 2015 and it could certainly be argued that it has a place when you look at in the perspective of the entire decade.

Will NASA fund its continuing mission beyond Pluto?

I say “why not?” Surely, the New Horizon’s investigation and surpassed expectations that saw it launched in 2006, why let it simply go on its way with no traveling money? Ice volcanoes, unexpected glaciers, lakes comprised of nitrogen, and more certainly warrant its continuing mission. The decision will be made by NASA whether to earmark money for a mission beyond Pluto this summer and both professionally and personally I would really like to see more from this stalwart launched a decade ago.

New Horizons, if funded, will likely turn its attention to 2014 MU69 next and NASA and others hope that observations of the object that orbits the sun one billion miles beyond Pluto could provide some real insight into the early days of the solar system.

“The Kuiper Belt in general, and the cold classical objects especially, are the most primordial objects,” says Simon Porter, post-doctoral researcher on the New Horizons mission. “They were never pushed around by the giant planets; they’re pretty much where they formed and haven’t been disturbed except for occasionally bumping into each other.”

We are talking about the potential to answer questions that go back to the origins of a solar system that formed 4.6 billion years ago and New Horizons is quite close in a astronomical sense. It would make little sense not to fund the continued mission.

This “cold classical” would be the first ever studied and ground observations don’t offer much given its distance but scientists are hoping that MU69, 20-30 miles in diameter, also has a moon (or two?).

“We can’t conclusively say if it has moons or not based on the Hubble images,” says Porter. “For the big cold classicals, something like 30 percent have known moons. There’s a pretty good chance that this thing’s got at least one satellite. It could be a small one. It could be a big one, could be several. We really don’t know.”

“We are already using the craters on Pluto and its moons to constrain how many small Kuiper Belt objects there are. MU69 is an even better test, as it sees much fewer potential impactors than Pluto, we think.” While counting craters may sound a miserable career choice listening to Counting Crows may be considerably worse.

New Horizons’ team planning on funding

While the mission is officially over soon, the team charged with New Horizon’s flight and study is hoping to see a bit of money to continue and in November directed the spacecraft towards MU69 and performed four separate fuel burns to change its course and send it towards it.

“The spacecraft is on its way to MU69, but in order to actually have the flyby, NASA has to approve keeping the spacecraft on for that long,” says Porter. “If they don’t then we would literally turn off the spacecraft this year.

And it’s not all about MU69, while New Horizons would be traveling in its direction, it would also pass through the Kuiper Belt and surely wouldn’t lie dormant while passing through but imaging other objects.

If given the chance to make a flyby it would occur on New Year’s Eve 2018, but that distance imaging information will take over six hours to reach Earth. That imaging would fall to RALPH and LORRI, as well as its UV imaging spectrometer, Alice, and will give scientists much desired information about its size brightness and composition, which is again inaccurate from ground observations.

“It’s the last unknown type of object in the solar system that we’re going to visit,” says Porter.

“We’ve never been to one of these objects before, so we really have no idea what it’s like,” says Porter. “We’ve been to comets, but comets are degraded versions of these things. We’ve been to moons that are about that size, around Pluto, around Saturn, but they’re moons so they’re formed in a completely different way. They’re probably made of completely different stuff. It’s the last unknown type of object in the solar system that we’re going to visit.”