It will be a monumental occasion when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto next July after a nine year journey of more than four billion miles. Although Pluto was once considered to be a small, strange planet orbiting at the outer edges of the Solar System, it is now regarded as the largest member of a giant group of frozen objects collectively known as the Kuiper Belt. Scientific data gathered from Pluto and its moons could give astronomers a plethora of information in regards to the unexplored parts of the solar system immediately next to this one.
However, once $700 million goes into a project as large as this one, it is difficult to let the space probe travel past Pluto with no further agenda. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principle Investigator from the Southwest Research Institute located in Boulder, Colorado is planning on visiting a second Kuiper Belt object (KBO) after the New Horizons space probe completes the Pluto mission. The only problem is, even though scientists are convinced that there are billions of KBOs in the Universe, they have only identified around 1,500 of them in the past 22 years and none are on the New Horizons estimated trajectory.
KBOs are so incredibly hard to make out that even the most powerful telescopes have problems identifying them. Researchers have been pressuring NASA for time to use the Hubble Space Telescope in an effort to pick up on the KBOs and pinpoint a target. Eventually the Time Allocation Committee for use of the Hubble agreed. The researchers will now be able to use the telescope for the duration of 200 orbits around the Earth, each lasting 90 minutes. If however, they do not find at least two new KBOs during 40 orbits, they will not regain use of the telescope for the remaining 160.
They will have to act soon too. It is nearly impossible that there will be any KBOs right on the New Horizon’s current projected path, so the researchers will have to make the space probe fire its engines by slightly adjusting its trajectory in whichever way it needs to go. The scientists will have to get to work immediately after New Horizons passes Pluto during its journey. The only way they can estimate where the spacecraft needs to go, is by tracking the KBO for months ahead of time in order to account for its orbit and make plans to adjust the flight path.
Even with the help of the Hubble, finding a KBO around the original path will be difficult, regardless of how many KBOs are floating around in space. However, if the researchers are able to find one before the end of the summer, scientists will have another chance to try to understand what is going on at the very edge of the Solar System. The researchers are under pressure considering the lack of time and resources necessary to go out as far as Pluto again, but they remain hopeful.
Other than looking for more KBOs in an effort to extend research, the New Horizons space probe will also be sending out a digital message from the people of Earth to the outer regions of the Solar System. Once NASA reviews the final message, the recording will be streamed to the space probe. What happens after New Horizon’s journey to Pluto will provide scientists with information from an area that has never been explored by humanity before.
By Addi Simmons