The New Horizons spacecraft has now imaged the first object beyond the orbit of Pluto. This marks the first scientific accomplishment of the distant observatory since its encounter with the frozen dwarf planet in July 2015.
Known as 1994 JR1, the newly imaged body is a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) measuring about 90 miles in diameter. The object orbits around the sun at a distance of more than 3 billion miles.
New Horizons raced on a path out of the solar system at a distance of 69 million miles from JR1 when a total of 20 photographs taken on April 7 to 8. The KBO had been recorded previously by New Horizons - from a distance of 170 million miles.
"Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO," said Simon Porter, member of the science team from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), investigating the data.
The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument aboard New Horizons was utilized to photograph the new set of images.
Analysis of the information collected by the spacecraft also shows the KBO rotates once every 5.4 hours, a quick pace for a Kuiper Belt object. Before these images, some astronomers had suggested that JR1 may be a quasi-satellite of Pluto. However, the latest photographs dispel that idea.
New Horizons launched to Pluto in January 2006, on a mission to explore what was then the last unexplored planet in the solar system. Long before the spacecraft reached its target, astronomers demoted Pluto to the status of dwarf planet.
In July 2015, New Horizons became the first man-made object to ever explore Pluto and its family of five satellites. Observations of JR1 serve as a prelude to potential new discoveries beyond the distant orbit of Pluto.
Kuiper Belt objects are relics left from the formation of our family of planets. In the next few years, New Horizons may observe at least 20 additional KBO's, should NASA elect to pursue an extended mission. On January 1, 2019, the far-flung observatory will make a close pass by 2014 MU69, another Kuiper Belt object.