Designed and funded on the premise that it would fly past a Kuiper belt asteroid after it flew past Pluto, the New Horizons team has so far failed to find such an asteroid and is running out of time.


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Designed and funded on the premise that it would fly past a Kuiper belt object (KBO) after it flew past Pluto, the New Horizons team has so far failed to find such an asteroid and is running out of time.

In theory, project scientists should have identified a suitable KBO long ago. But they postponed their main search until 2011, waiting for all the possible KBO targets to begin converging on a narrow cone of space that New Horizons should be able to reach after its Pluto encounter. Starting to look for them before 2011 would have been impossible, says Grundy, because they would have been spread over too much of the sky.

Now that the hunt for KBOs is on, the New Horizons researchers have mainly been using the 8.2-metre Subaru Telescope in Hawaii and the 6.5-metre Magellan Telescopes in Chile. They have found about 50 new KBOs; none is close enough for New Horizons to reach.

I always thought it unlikely that they would be able to, on the fly, find a suitable candidate that New Horizons could reach in the very empty vastness beyond Pluto. In fact, it seemed absurd and to me seemed instead a transparent public relations ploy to get the funding for the fly-by mission to Pluto. Sadly, my cynical perspective here appears to be turning out to be true.

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6 comments

  • Pzatchok

    Why didn’t they just plan on putting it into a permanent orbit inside the Kuiper belt?
    It would eventually pass all the objects in the Kuiper belt. And with a little planning it could have been left with enough fuel to be nudged a bit closer to something it finds.

    Or they could have started looking years ago and identified any object or objects long before hand.

  • Competential

    It would require an undoable amount of fuel to lower the speed enough to get into orbit. New horizons is a bullet. Halting it out there would require launching an entire rifle instead of a bullet. Or use a very slow trajectory. It took 7 years for Cassini to get into orbit of Saturn. Pluto is about three times further away and has much less gravity. It could take three decades to give Pluto an orbiter if the budget is limited to just a few billions (for the New Horizons flyby the budget is only $bn 0.7)

    I think flybys is the way to go to explore the outer solar system. Next (ESA) mission to Jupiter is planned to arrive in the 2030s. With about 10 years on the road. The instruments will be ancient when they arrive. Cheap fast flybys could use modern instruments and be much more flexible since the next will be built on the experiences from the last. One single probe per generation of scientists is quite a risky gamble for their careers. Two or three $bn 0.7 flybys a decade might be preferable. But with NH as the only exception, I’ve never heard of any future flyby missions.

  • Competential

    I wonder if the Gaia space telescope could help find a KBO in time? It should be up and running about any day now, and if it happens to scan a useful part of the sky early on, maybe it could find something useful for New Horizons. Just a thought, this is probably not straight forward.

  • Competential

    NASA:s ability to prolong existing missions is very impressive. I’d bet their clever guys will hustle something up for New Horizons.

    I love flybys (I should have a T-shirt printed!)

    – First pass Jupiter and near its moon Europa (New Horizons took the best images there are of the Jupiter system as it passed by only one year after launch).

    – Then passing by a targeted outer planet(oid) like Uranus or Pluto. And near one of the moons of that planet.

    – Then passing by a KBO, Preferably one which has been identified before launch. I think that the Gaia telescope might find many many useful targets for such missions.

    – And finally measure the limits of the solar and interstellar interactions.

    That adds up to five closely studied objects and a peak into the interstellar medium, where actually 80+% of all baryonic “real” materia exist. And its fast and cheap!

  • Competential

    Passing Jupiter for gravity assist, to make that clear.
    Every probe, all six of them, to the planets beyond Jupiter, have used Jupiter as a gravity sling. Except Rosetta of ESA which passed a little further out than the orbit of Jupiter but without any gravitational relation to it.

  • Pzatchok

    I wonder if they could hug Pluto a bit longer and send it back into or across the solar system. It might give them more time to find a suitable target on their new heading?

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