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New Horizons delivers first data on post-Pluto object


NASA's pioneering spacecraft takes a new image of a tiny Kuiper Belt object that is orbiting the Sun way out past Pluto. Bill Condie reports.


An artist's impression of the New Horizons space probe.
UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
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.

The first two of the 20 observations that New Horizons made of 1994 JR1 in April 2016. The Kuiper Belt object is the bright moving dot indicated by the arrow. The dots that do not move are background stars. The moving feature in the top left is an internal camera reflection (a kind of selfie) caused by illumination by a very bright star just outside of LORRI's field of view.
NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
“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 2014.png?ixlib=rails 2.1
Bill is head of publishing at The Royal Institution of Australia and former publisher of Cosmos.
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