May 28, 2020

26.04.11: New Horizons and the Hunt for KBO’s.

A sky survey has begun this month for a very special mission. In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission will whiz past the Pluto-Charon system on its way out of the solar system. Scientists will collect data on the pair for a frenzied few days…and then what?

Well, if co-investigator John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute and his team are successful, we may have a list of potential Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO’s) later this year to investigate in the 2015-2020 timeframe. The New Horizons team has procured time on some of the world’s largest telescopes, including the twin 6.5 meter Magellan telescopes in Chile and the 8 meter Subaru and the 3.6 meter joint French-Canadian-US scopes atop Mauna Kea to scout out any potential targets that might lie ahead for New Horizons post-Pluto. The field is tough; New Horizons has limited maneuvering capability and is speeding along at about 17 km per second after its 2007 Jupiter encounter. Like the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft before it, New Horizons is destined to leave the solar system. The field of Pluto and regions beyond that harbor potential targets also happens to be along the Sagittarius-Ophiuchus border, a very star rich realm facing towards the core of our galaxy. Astronomers will definitely have their work cut out for them, hunting for 50+ km ice balls fainter than magnitude +18 moving against the background sky. But by the end of this summer, we may just have a list of potential KBO’s to visit for the first time. Just what are these distant worldlets like? Keep in mind, this region expands outward from roughly 30 to 55 Astronomical Units from our Sun; a vast realm far larger than the traditional inner solar system. Doubtless, a vast reservoir of bodies lay undiscovered “out there…” Let’s hope a least a couple happen to be along New Horizons’ trajectory!

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