Life After Pluto for Probe

The Kuiper belt is an enormous belt of asteroids and comets that surrounds our solar system like a giant ring, first theorized by Kenneth Edgeworth and Gerard Kuiper in the 1950’s but until recently the KBO’s (Kuiper Belt Objects) had never had a mission to visit them. Thanks to NASA’s go to telescope, Hubble, they have found at least 3 KBO’s that the New Horizons probe could visit after it’s rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015.

“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 the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.

The reason this is exciting science news is because no spacecraft has ever been close enough to study KBO’s before and considering the entire Kuiper belt is leftovers from our solar systems creation, it would be a veritable gold mine for understanding our origins.


The KBOs Hubble found are each about 10 times larger than typical comets, but only about 1-2 percent of the size of Pluto. 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. The KBOs found in the Hubble data are thought to be the building blocks of dwarf planets such as Pluto.

The New Horizons team started to look for suitable KBOs in 2011 using some of the largest ground-based telescopes on Earth. They found several dozen KBOs, but none was reachable within the fuel supply available aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

“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. “There was a huge sigh of relief when we found suitable KBOs; we are ‘over the moon’ about this detection.”

The scientists involved in the ‘needle in a hay stack’ search should be proud of their dedication and efforts in finding the KBO’s due to their extremely dull visibility against a back drop of stars and darkness. If successful the new horizons probe will explore the last of the KBO’s around 2018 and be over 4 billion kilometres from the sun.

We can’t wait to see hi-res picture of Pluto and other KBO’s.

Stay Curious – C.Costigan


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