NASA Spots New Targets For New Horizons Pluto Mission

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has identified three new targets for the agency’s New Horizons probe to explore after it arrives in the Pluto system next year.

The three Kuiper Belt objects were discovered by the New Horizons team who were granted use of the Hubble Space Telescope to search for other bodies that the spacecraft could study. KBOs are particularly difficult to discover because they are very small, dim and distant objects.

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons probe flying by the Pluto-Charon system. Credit: Johns Hopkins University / APL

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons probe flying by the Pluto-Charon system. Credit: Johns Hopkins University / APL

“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,” said New Horizons science team member John Spencer of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “There was a huge sigh of relief when we found suitable KBOs; we are ‘over the moon’ about this detection.”

All three objects are at least 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, and at least one is within the reach of the New Horizons probe. Further tracking will be required to determine if the other two are within the range of the spacecraft. The team had previously discovered dozens of KBOs using powerful ground-based telescopes, but none could be reached with the spacecraft’s available fuel supply.

“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,” said Alan Stern of SwRI, principal investigator for the New Horizons mission.

The Kuiper Belt is a vast region beyond the orbit of the planets composed mostly of icy objects, which may contain clues to the origins of the solar system. The arrival of the New Horizons probe at Pluto presents a rare opportunity to better understand this unexplored region of the solar system.

“Unlike asteroids, KBOs have not been heated by the sun and are thought to represent a pristine, well preserved deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago,” according to NASA.

The New Horizons probe, which was launched in 2006, will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and will capture the first detailed images of the dwarf planet when it arrives on July 14, 2015. The dwarf planet is so distant from us that even images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope appear blurry and indistinct.

Once the spacecraft completes its prime mission exploring the Pluto system, the New Horizons team plans to submit a proposal for an extended mission to send the probe on a flyby of one of the newly found KBO.