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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.