Scientists looking for targets beyond Pluto for NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft to visit will get more time on the Hubble Space Telescope, managers decided after a two-week pilot study revealed at least two candidate objects.
The New Horizons team had spent three fruitless years using ground-based telescopes to find a Kuiper Belt Object that will be within range of New Horizons after its July 14, 2015, flyby of Pluto. Last month, scientists got two weeks of observing time on Hubble for initial scans.
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The deal was that if they found at least two candidates, they could have another 160 orbits worth of telescope time to ferret out a second suitable target for New Horizons.
The spacecraft, which was launched in 2006, is on track to become the first probe to visit the dwarf planet Pluto, located some 4.7 billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons must fire its maneuvering engine by December 2015 to put itself on track for another Kuiper Belt Object flyby, lead scientist Alan Stern told Discovery News.
The Kuiper Belt is an area of icy bodies left over from the formation of the solar system. It is named after astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who theorized the existence of the belt in a 1951 science paper. The first Kuiper Belt Objects were found in the early 1990s. About 1,000 have been identified so far, but scientists suspect many more exist.
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Analysis of an initial 200 Hubble images, taken between June 16 and June 26, showed that at least two Kuiper Belt Objects might be within range of New Horizons.
“I am delighted that our initial investment of Hubble time paid off,” Matt Mountain director of the Space Telescope Science Institute that oversees Hubble science observations, said in a statement.
A more detailed search is scheduled to begin this month and conclude in August.