Friday, February 22, 2013

New Horizons Kuiper-Belt Fly Through

Fly with the New Horizons spacecraft as it cruises by dozens of newly-discovered Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) near its trajectory. These objects were found by our survey team (gray points) as well as by members of the public through Ice Hunters (purple points) during a search - still under way - to find a KBO for New Horizons to approach close enough to take detailed images and measurements of its surface. See below the break for details.

New Horizons Mission: Kuiper Belt Fly-Through from Alex Parker on Vimeo.

Mission to Pluto and Beyond: The search for a Kuiper Belt target

On July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will become the first mission to visit the distant dwarf planet Pluto (2400 kilometers across) and its retinue of five moons, flying by at speeds over 50 times faster than a jet airliner.

With its onboard reserve of fuel, New Horizons is capable of performing a small course correction after this Pluto encounter, with the aim of visiting another much smaller, frozen world deep in the Kuiper Belt. At present, however, there are no known Kuiper Belt objects which New Horizons can reach with its remaining fuel - so a search to find these targets must be performed.

A team of scientists from across the world are making a concerted effort to identify one or more Kuiper Belt encounter targets within reach of New Horizons with its expected fuel supply in 2015. Using some of Earth's largest telescopes, we are searching the area of sky where such an encounter target would be today. This area of sky is extremely difficult to search for faint Kuiper Belt objects, owing to the fact that this region lies in the direction of the core of our Galaxy where the number of background stars is extremely high. Our team has developed a suite of advanced digital image processing algorithms for searching this data, however, and using these we have discovered a host of new Kuiper Belt objects which will fly near the spacecraft - though none yet fit within the available encounter fuel budget.

Animation Details

This animation shows the flight of the New Horizons spacecraft from 2010 to 2023 through this cloud of newly discovered Kuiper Belt Objects revealed by our search. Each KBO's position and motion has been computed from its best known orbit solution. For many objects these orbit solutions remain relatively uncertain, so the exact flyby geometry may change as we acquire new and better data.

The yellow triangle indicates the position of the New Horizons spacecraft. The large cyan circle marks Pluto's position. The small gray points are the new Kuiper Belt Objects we discovered in the 2011-2012 observing seasons, while the purple points are new Kuiper Belt Objects discovered in 2004-2005 observing season data by members of the public through the "IceHunters" citizen science effort.

The left panels show a top-down (i.e., from above the plane of the Earth's orbit) and side-on view of the spacecraft trajectory and the Kuiper Belt Objects discovered in our survey so far. Distance scales from the Sun are illustrated with gray lines, and the pericentric (closest point to the Sun) and apocentric (farthest point from the Sun) distances of Uranus and Neptune are marked with dashed white lines.

The right panel shows the Kuiper Belt objects from the perspective of the New Horizons spacecraft on its actual trajectory, with the view rendered as facing directly outward from the Sun. The illustrated size of each KBO scales with distance from the spacecraft, but the sizes are not to scale (almost all of the Kuiper Belt objects so far detected will be unresolved by the instruments onboard the spacecraft). For any Kuiper Belt object which passes within 2 AU of the spacecraft, the range in AU is shown. In the animation, a "flyby" sound is generated by the distance and flyby geometry of each object. Since there is no sound in space, this sound is there purely to enhance the impression of motion through the Kuiper Belt.

Two long-range flybys with Kuiper Belt Objects occur before the Pluto encounter, one late 2013 and one in early 2015. It may be possible for New Horizons to make distant observations of these two objects, though neither is large enough to be resolved.

The "cluster" of distant flybys that begins in June of 2018 is due to the passage of New Horizons into the "cold classical Kuiper Belt," a region of space densely populated by Kuiper Belt Objects.

The hunt for ideal New Horizons encounter targets continues, and future versions of this animation will be updated as new Kuiper Belt objects are discovered.


More information on the New Horizons mission:

Mission website

New Horizons Wikipedia page

Video Credits

Alex Harrison Parker - New Horizons Outer Solar System Science Fellow, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The 2011-2012 New Horizons Kuiper Belt Object search team & contributors (alphabetical by first name): Alan Stern, Brian McLeod, Cesar Fuentes, Darin Ragozzine, David Borncamp, David Osip, David Tholen, David Trilling, Francesca DeMeo, Jean-Marc Petit, JJ Kavelaars, John Spencer, Lawrence Wasserman, Marc Buie, Matthew Holman, Richard Binzel, Scott Sheppard, Sebastian Fabbro, Stephen Gwyn, and Susan Benecchi. The Ice Hunters were organized by Pamela Gay, and a partial list of contributors to the 2004-2005 discoveries can be found here. A full list of contributors will be forthcoming.

[ Migrated from original post. ]

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