New Horizons Detects Mystery Kuiper Belt Object beyond Pluto

'Kuiper Belt'

Artist’s impression of a Kuiper Belt object.

BEACON TRANSCRIPT – While it has been racing toward our solar system’s outer reaches, NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft got a glimpse twice of a mystery 90-mile-wide Kuiper Belt object (KBO) dubbed 1994 JR1 that is located some 3 billion miles from our host star.

Scientists believe that the elusive space rock may be a remnant from our solar system’s earliest days.

The spacecraft snapped a photo of the object with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on April 7-8. The image was taken from a 69-million-mile distance and it is consistent with similar findings made last fall when the probe first saw the KBO, from a 170-million-mile distance.

Simon Porter, researcher with the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute who is involved in the New Horizons mission, noted that the discovery points to a series of remarkable findings. Porter said that the two sets of observations allowed his team to determine JR1’s position within 600 miles, which is the most accurate orbit for a small KBO so far.

The newly pinpointed orbit also challenged an older theory that JR1 may be an ancient satellite of Pluto. The recent observations helped the New Horizons team calculate the space rock’s rotation period.

Researchers believe that JR1 completes a rotation every 5.4 hours. They based their assumptions on the amount of sunlight reflected by the small object’s surface. But having a 5.4-hour day suggests that the KBO is spinning relatively fast, the team argued.

“This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before,”

Spencer said.

The team expects more close-ups of Kuiper Belt objects in the next several years. Scientists eyed at least 20 more candidates that could help them understand the origins of the solar system. NASA now needs the funds necessary to extend the mission.

New Horizons made history on July 14, 2015, when it performed humankind’s first flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny probe is now heading to the Kuiper Belt for another flyby. New Horizons is slated to reach the KBO dubbed 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019.

Between 2006 and 2015, the spacecraft traveled nearly 3 billion miles to reach Pluto. After the historic flyby it sent a series of high-resolution snapshots of both Pluto and its moons.

New Horizons converts plutonium radiation into energy and it loses a few watts with each passing year. But NASA believes that the probe will remain fully operational for at least two more decades.

Image Source: Wikimedia