The New Horizons spacecraft has discovered three new Kuiper Belt objects, as the vehicle rushes towards mankind's first encounter with Pluto.
New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006, headed to what was then considered to be the ninth and outermost planet - Pluto. In February 2007, the vehicle made a fly-by of the giant planet Jupiter, which provided the craft with a gravitational assist, shortening the journey to Pluto by three years. The robotic observatory, currently traveling nearly 33,000 MPH, is due to make a close encounter with the distant world on July 14, 2015, at 7:50 a.m. EDT.
Pluto was first discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and was immediately considered to be the ninth planet in our local family of worlds. That designation was removed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2006, to great public criticism. At a public forum in September, Owen Gingerich, who chairs the IAU planet definition committee, stated his belief Pluto is a planet, although there exists no official move to reclassify the body.
The Kuiper Belt is a collection of vast numbers of frozen objects left over from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago. No spacecraft has ever visited one of these distant frigid bodies, although analysis of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO's) could help astronomers learn about the early development of our local planetary system. There could be as many as a billion of these objects larger than 6.25 miles in diameter, according to NASA.
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was used to find icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt which could be visited by New Horizons after its close encounter with Pluto and her system of satellites. In 2011, astronomers started searching for KBO's which could provide a target for New Horizons after its close encounter with Pluto. Ground-based telescopes were able to detect several Kuiper Belt objects, but none which could be reached by the spacecraft, with limited fuel on board.
"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. There was a huge sigh of relief when we found suitable KBOs; we are 'over the moon' about this detection," John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute, and member of the New Horizons science team, said.
One of the Kuiper Belt objects discovered by the team could certainly be reached by New Horizons, while the other two may or may not be within reach, requiring further observation. These are tiny objects - one is just 15 miles across, while the other two are no more than 34 miles in diameter. The New Horizon spacecraft could reach the distant objects, which orbit more than one billion miles past the orbit of Pluto, in 2018 or 2019.