NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is starting to send back information about an object in the Kuiper Belt that is orbiting the Sun at more than five billion kilometres.
The craft first imaged 1994 JR1 in November last year at a distance of 280 million kilometres. Then on 7-8 April, it took another look with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from a distance of about 111 million kilometres.
NASA scientists say the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) is just 145 kilometres wide.
Simon Porter, a New Horizons science team member from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, said the observations contain several valuable findings.
“Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometres, far better than any small KBO,” he said.
The data had already allowed scientists to dismiss an earlier theory that the KBO was orbiting Pluto.
The team has also determined that JR1 rotates once every 5.4 hours for one JR1 day.
“That’s relatively fast for a KBO,” said John Spencer, also from SwRI.
“This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.”
New Horizons has a possible 20 KBOs to take a closer look at over the next few years if NASA approves a mission extension.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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