Tag Archives: Kuiper Belt

New Horizons snaps first picture of Ultima

It isn’t much more than a tiny moving dot across a sea of stars, but on August 16, 2018 New Horizons was able to capture its first series of images of its January 1st fly-by target, the Kuiper belt object they have nicknamed Ultima Thule.

This first detection is important because the observations New Horizons makes of Ultima over the next four months will help the mission team refine the spacecraft’s course toward a closest approach to Ultima, at 12:33 a.m. EST on Jan. 1, 2019. That Ultima was where mission scientists expected it to be – in precisely the spot they predicted, using data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope – indicates the team already has a good idea of Ultima’s orbit.

Ultima was 100 million miles away at the time.

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No giant planet needed in Kuiper Belt to shape orbits of outer known planets

Using computer models astronomers have found that the tiny objects in the Kuiper Belt could be sufficient, instead of one giant undiscovered planet, to provide the gravity necessary to explain the orbits of the solar system’s outer planets.

They call theorized giant planet “Planet Nine,” which seems silly since Pluto really still fills that role. Nonetheless, this work also might explain the process that flung some surprisingly large objects so far out into the Kuiper Belt.

They ran supercomputer simulations of how bodies might interact in the outer Solar System far beyond Pluto, in the icy region known as the Kuiper belt. They found that a flock of Moon-sized worlds could do many of the same things as Planet Nine.

Over millions of years, the collective gravity of these smaller worlds would nudge the orbits of distant objects. The worlds would jostle one another like bumper cars and, occasionally, cause an object to move into a very distant orbit. Their simulations suggest that more-massive objects would be flung into the most distant orbits — as some observations have suggested.

We must also remind ourselves that this conclusion is based on a computer model, and is filled with uncertainty. We also do not yet have a full census of objects in the Kuiper Belt, which means this model required many assumptions.

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Pluto formed from a billion comets?

Scientists have come up with a new theory for the origin of Pluto, based on data from New Horizons and Rosetta, that suggests the planets formed from the accretion of a billion comets or Kuiper Belt objects.

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation,” said Dr. Christopher Glein of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. The research is described in a paper published online today in Icarus. At the heart of the research is the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia, a large glacier that forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface. “We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

This is only a hypothesis, but it is intriguing. It suggests that Pluto’s make-up came only from the outer parts of the solar system, thus constraining how much mixing between the solar system’s inner and outer regions occurred. For scientists trying to understand the formation of the entire solar system, this lack of mixing would be significant. It means that the gas giants, while migrating inward, never migrated outward.

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Asteroid that formed in the inner solar system discovered in Kuiper Belt

Astronomers have discovered a carbonaceous asteroid in the distant Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto, even though it likely formed in the inner solar system.

The asteroid’s existence serves to confirm models of the solar system’s formation that say that the orbits of gas giants migrate inward and outward during the formation process, and as they do so they can fling material out of the inner solar system. This asteroid is the first evidence of this process.

At the same time, the data here is quite slim. They have only found one such asteroid. It could be that it was flung into the Kuiper Belt by other processes. If the formation model is correct, many more such Kuiper Belt asteroids will be eventually be found.

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New Horizons takes the most distant pictures from Earth ever taken

Kuiper Belt Object 2012 HE85

The New Horizons science team has released three images taken by the spacecraft from almost 3.8 billion miles from Earth, the most distant images ever taken.

The routine calibration frame of the “Wishing Well” galactic open star cluster, made by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Dec. 5, was taken when New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers, or 40.9 astronomical units) from Earth – making it, for a time, the farthest image ever made from Earth.

…LORRI broke its own record just two hours later with images of Kuiper Belt objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 – further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you’re covering more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) of space each day.

The images themselves are not spectacular to look at, though the two images of two different Kuiper Belt objects are the best ever taken of such objects, and certainly contain data that scientists will be able to use. The image on the right is one of these objects, 2012 HE85. For example, note how it does not appear to be round.

This exercise is in preparation for the January 1, 2019 fly-by of 2014 MU69, where the images will be sharp and detailed, and provide us a good look at such a distant object.

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New Horizons successfully does course correction

New Horizons yesterday successfully fired its engines for 2.5 minutes to refine its course and January 1, 2019 fly-by of Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69.

The maneuver both refined the course toward and optimized the flyby arrival time at MU69, by setting closest approach to 12:33 a.m. EST (5:33 UTC) on Jan. 1, 2019. The prime flyby distance is set at 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers); the timing provides better visibility for DSN’s powerful antennas to reflect radar waves off the surface of MU69 for New Horizons to receive – a difficult experiment that, if it succeeds, will help scientists determine the reflectivity and roughness of MU69’s surface.

The spacecraft will next be put in hibernation on December 21, and stay in that state until June.

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New Horizons wants the public to help pick a nickname for its next target

The New Horizons science team is asking the public to submit suggestions for a good nickname for 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object that the spacecraft will fly past on January 1, 2019.

The naming campaign is hosted by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California, and led by Mark Showalter, an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The website includes names currently under consideration; site visitors can vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot. “The campaign is open to everyone,” Showalter said. “We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69.”

The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January.

The press release says that a more formal name for the object will be submitted to the IAU after the fly-by.

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New Horizons team looks for second flyby in Kuiper Belt

The New Horizons science team is hoping to send their probe past a second more distant Kuiper Belt object after its January 1, 2019 flyby of 2014 MU69, if they can find an object that the spacecraft can reach.

They haven’t found any candidates yet, NASA has not agreed to a mission extension anyway, and their focus now remains the 2019 flyby. Still, if they are lucky and can get another target, this would be a nice bonus for the mission.

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Plan of New Horizons’ fly-by of 2014 MU69 announced

The New Horizons science team has announced its detailed plan for the January 1, 2019 fly-by of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

If all goes as planned, New Horizons will come to within just 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) of MU69 at closest approach, peering down on it from celestial north. The alternate plan, to be employed in certain contingency situations such as the discovery of debris near MU69, would take New Horizons within 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) — still closer than the 7,800-mile (12,500-kilometer) flyby distance to Pluto.

…If the closer approach is executed, the highest-resolution camera on New Horizons, the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) should be able to spot details as small as 230 feet (70 meters) across, for example, compared to nearly 600 feet (183 meters) on Pluto.

MU69 is thought to either be two objects orbiting very close to each other or an object similar to Comet 67P/C-G, two objects in contact but barely so.

In a related New Horizons story, the International Astronautical Union (IAU) has officially accepted 14 names chosen by the New Horizons team for features on Pluto.

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MU69 is not round

New data about 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object that New Horizons plans to fly past on January 1, 2019, suggests that it is either elongated or made of two objects almost touching.

Recent observations suggest that the rock is no more than 20 miles long, and its shape is not round or elliptical, like most space rocks. Instead, the icy body is either shaped like a stretched football, called an “extreme prolate spheroid,” or like two rocks joined together. That creates a rubber ducky shape similar to the comet that the European Space Agency landed on two years ago.

It’s even possible that the object is, in fact, two objects — like a pair of rocks that are orbiting around each other, or are so close that they’re touching. If 2014 MU69 does turn out to be two objects, then each one is probably between nine and 12 miles in diameter, according to the New Horizons team.

I predict that this object will be even weirder in shape that predicted. The low gravity in the Kuiper Belt almost guarantees it.

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Warp in Kuiper Belt suggests existence of Mars-sized object

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers think they have identified a warp in the Kuiper Belt that suggests a Mars-sized object exists there, affecting the orbits of surrounding objects.

According to the calculations, an object with the mass of Mars orbiting roughly 60 AU from the sun on an orbit tilted by about eight degrees (to the average plane of the known planets) has sufficient gravitational influence to warp the orbital plane of the distant KBOs [Kuiper Belt Objests] within about 10 AU to either side. “The observed distant KBOs are concentrated in a ring about 30 AU wide and would feel the gravity of such a planetary mass object over time,” Volk said, “so hypothesizing one planetary mass to cause the observed warp is not unreasonable across that distance.”

This proposed planet is not the theorized Planet Nine that other astronomers have proposed. That planet, which hasn’t been found and other data says doesn’t exist, would be much larger and much farther out.

I would add that neither of these proposed planets might exist. At this moment our data of the Kuiper Belt is very incomplete. I would not bet much on any theory that extrapolates planets from what we presently know.

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Recent Kuiper Belt discoveries cast doubt a big planet exists there

The uncertainty of science: Despite predictions by some scientists that a big planet exists in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune, recent new discoveries of new objects there cast doubt on its existence.

If the additional big planet existed, the newly discovered objects would have shown some clustering, shepherded by its gravity.

“We find no evidence of the orbit clustering needed for the Planet Nine hypothesis in our fully independent survey,” says Cory Shankman, an astronomer at the University of Victoria in Canada and a member of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS), which since 2013 has found more than 800 objects out near Neptune using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. In a paper posted to arXiv on 16 June and soon to be published in The Astronomical Journal, the OSSOS team describes eight of its most distant discoveries, including four of the type used to make the initial case for Planet Nine.

“I think it’s great work, and it’s exciting to keep finding these,” says Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., who was among the first to suspect a large planet in the distant solar system. But he says three of the four new objects do have clustered orbits consistent with a Planet Nine. The fourth, an object called 2015 GT50, seems to skew the entire set of OSSOS worlds toward a random distribution. But that is not necessarily a knockout blow, he says. “We always expected that there would be some that don’t fit in.”

Note that I do not consider “Planet Nine” to be an accurate name for this theorized planet. Either it is #10, after Pluto, or one of a large number far more than nine, based on a new proposed and more logical planetary definition. The present definition however does not work.

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Moon discovered around Kuiper belt dwarf planet

Astronomers have discovered a moon orbiting 2007 OR10, one of the Kuiper Belt’s larger objects.

With this discovery, most of the known dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt larger than 600 miles across have companions. These bodies provide insight into how moons formed in the young solar system. “The discovery of satellites around all of the known large dwarf planets — except for Sedna — means that at the time these bodies formed billions of years ago, collisions must have been more frequent, and that’s a constraint on the formation models,” said Csaba Kiss of the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary. He is the lead author of the science paper announcing the moon’s discovery. “If there were frequent collisions, then it was quite easy to form these satellites.”

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New Horizons halfway to 2014 MU69

Since flying past Pluto in July 2014 New Horizons has now flown halfway to its next target, Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.

The fly-by will take place on January 1, 2019.

Posted from the South Rim after hiking out today from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Since Saturday I did about 40 miles of hiking, both near and inside the Canyon. I hope to post some details in the coming days.

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New Horizons adjusts its course

New Horizons successfully completed today a short 44 second engine burn to refine its course towards its January 1, 2019 flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.

The spacecraft had also been making observations this past week of six other Kuiper Belt Objects, the data of which will be sent home over the coming weeks.

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Moon found orbiting one of the larger known Kuiper belt object

Astronomers have found a moon circling 2007 Or10, one of the Kuiper Belts eight largest objects and the only one as yet unnamed.

Astronomers Gábor Marton and Csaba Kiss (Konkoly Observatory, Hungary), and Thomas Müller (Max Planck Institute, Germany) have identified a moon orbiting 2007 OR10. They spotted it in Hubble Space Telescope images taken in September 2010 as part of a survey of trans-Neptunian objects. Marton announced the discovery this week at a joint meeting of the AAS’s Division for Planetary Sciences and the European Planetay Science Congress.

Although 2007 OR10 itself has been known for almost a decade, only recently have researchers realized that it’s surface is quite dark and therefore that it must be quite sizable, with an estimated diameter of 1,535 km (955 miles). This makes it the third-largest dwarf planet, after Pluto and Eris. It also ranks third for distance — 13 billion km or 87 astronomical units away — drifting among the stars of central Aquarius at a dim magnitude 21.

Of the eight largest Kuiper Belt objects, only Sedna has not yet been found to have a moon.

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New object found beyond Kuiper belt

Worlds without end: Astronomers have discovered another object far beyond Pluto and in an elliptical orbit whose farthest point is 1,450 astronautical units, or about 135 billion miles from the Sun.

This is not the same object recently discovered in a somewhat similar elliptical orbit.

Astronomers right now do not understand the formation process that put these objects in these distant orbits. Some think the objects might have originally come from the Oort cloud that is even farther out from the Sun, their orbits shifted by the as-yet undiscovered Planet X that astronomers love to talk about, but others are skeptical. Since no one has ever actually detected anything in the the theorized Oort Cloud, it is also possible that it does not exist as presently theorized, and might actually be a more scattered collection of objects, like these new discoveries, that travel both farther and closer to the Sun.

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A large Kuiper Belt object discovered

Astronomers have detected a new but very distant Kuiper Belt object.

For now, his team knows little more about their distant discovery other than its orbit and apparent brightness. Given its distance, however, the object should be sizable — anywhere from 400 km across (if its surface is bright and 50% reflective) to 1,200 km (if very dark and 5% reflective). If its true size edges toward the larger end of this range, then 2014 UZ224 would likely qualify for dwarf-planet status.

Fortunately, we should have a much better estimate of the object’s size very soon. Gerdes has used the ALMA radio-telescope array to measure the heat radiating from 2014 UZ224, which can be combined with the optical measurements to yield its size and albedo.

The object has a very eccentric 1,140 year orbit, coming as close to the sun as Pluto at its closest and almost five times farther away at its furthest.

Note: I have changed the article title because this new object is almost certainly not bigger the Pluto, as one of my readers pointed out.

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New and very distance outer solar system objects beyond Neptune

Astronomers have discovered several new objects orbiting the Sun at extremely great distances beyond the orbit of Neptune.

The most interesting new discovery is 2014 FE72:

Another discovery, 2014 FE72, is the first distant Oort Cloud object found with an orbit entirely beyond Neptune. It has an orbit that takes the object so far away from the Sun (some 3000 times farther than Earth) that it is likely being influenced by forces of gravity from beyond our Solar System such as other stars and the galactic tide. It is the first object observed at such a large distance.

This research is being done as part of an effort to discover a very large planet, possibly as much as 15 times the mass of Earth, that the scientists have proposed that exists out there.

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New Horizons looks back at Pluto

One year after New Horizons’ breath-taking fly-by of Pluto, the science team has written a review of what they have learned.

They list what they consider the mission’s top ten discoveries, which I think can be summed up in one phrase: the uncertainty of science. Pluto was more active geologically and atmospherically than predicted by all models. It was also more complex. Other surprises: Both Pluto and Charon show evidence of sub-surface liquid oceans of water. Charon’s dark red polar baffles them. They unexpectedly found no additional moons, and also discovered that as far as they can tell by the available data, the moons were all formed when Pluto formed, something they also did not expect.

The one thing that I expected that did happen? We got close, and discovered things we had not expected. Be prepared for further surprises when New Horizons flies past Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.

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NASA okays New Horizons mission extension, rejects Dawn asteroid fly-by

NASA has approved an extension of the New Horizons mission to fly past Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.

In the same press release the agency announced that they have decided that they will get more worthwhile science by keeping Dawn in orbit around Ceres for the reminder of its life, rather then sending it on a proposed fly by of another asteroid.

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A Kuiper belt object turns out to be large

New observations of Kuiper Belt object 2007 OR10 have found it to be the largest unnamed object in the solar system, 955 miles across and about two-thirds the diameter of Pluto.

It also appears to rotate slowly, with each day about 45 hours long.

These results are decidedly uncertain, so don’t put much money on them. Nonetheless, the data continues to suggest that there are a lot of objects out there beyond Pluto.

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Hubble discovers moon circling Kuiper belt object

Worlds without end: Hubble has spotted a small moon orbiting the distant Kuiper Belt object Makemake.

The moon — provisionally designated S/2015 (136472) 1 and nicknamed MK 2 — is more than 1,300 times fainter than Makemake. MK 2 was seen approximately 13,000 miles from the dwarf planet, and its diameter is estimated to be 100 miles across. Makemake is 870 miles wide. The dwarf planet, discovered in 2005, is named for a creation deity of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.

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New Horizons’ future research goals

On Monday at a planetary science conference Alan Stern, the project scientist for New Horizons, outlined the science goals in studying the Kuiper Belt should the spacecraft’s mission be extened through 2021.

The main goal will be the January 1, 2019 fly-by of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, estimated to be between 12 to 24 miles across. However, the proposal also includes the following:

“In addition to making a close flyby of MU69, we’re also going to be close enough in range to study quite a number of other small KBOs, and some large ones that are on the Pluto scale,” Stern said. New Horizons will be able to study them in ways that could never be accomplished from Earth. The closeness of the spacecraft will enable high resolution observations, and the ability to look for satellites that cannot be seen from Earth observatories or with the Hubble Telescope.

“Because we are looking back on the rest of the solar system, at the Kuiper Belt and the Centaur Population,” Stern said, “we’re going to be able to study another 18 or 20 small bodies to determine whether or not the recently discovered rings around the centaur Chariklo are a common occurrence, or something anomalous. And I don’t know of any other way over the next several years, except through New Horizons, that we can develop a data set like that.”

What I find amazing is that it appears from Stern’s remarks that NASA has not yet approved this proposal. Before the team discovered 2014 MU69, I would have been more skeptical about extending the mission, but since they will be able to do a close fly-by of a type of object never before seen, and considering the time and cost it takes to get to the Kuiper Belt, it seems foolish now to not approve this mission extension.

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Astronomers propose Neptune-sized planet in Kuiper Belt

The uncertainty of science: Using the orbital data of many recently discovered Kuiper Belt objects [KBOs], two astronomers have proposed the existence of a planet ten times the mass of the Earth and orbiting the sun every 20,000 years.

Trujillo and Sheppard had noted that Sedna, VP113, and several other KBOs all shared a peculiar property: their closest approach to the Sun lay in the plane of the Solar System, and they all moved from south to north when crossing that plane. Batygin and Brown analyzed the orbits further and discovered that their long axes were physically aligned, too, as if something had nudged them to occupy the same region of space around the Sun. The team concluded that a massive object must be shepherding the objects. “We have a gravitational signature of a giant planet in the outer Solar System,” Batygin says.

Planet Nine — informally known as Phattie — is probably smaller than Neptune and icy with a gassy outer layer. The gravitational effect of Uranus and Neptune would have flung it outward in the first 3 million years of the Solar System’s existence, Batygin says.

Be warned! The existence of this as-yet unseen giant planet is quite uncertain. The orbits of the KBOs they are using to postulate its existence have only been observed for a very short period and have not been completely mapped. Thus, those orbits themselves are very uncertain. Moreover, we so far have a very incomplete census of the Kuiper Belt. The orbital behavior used as evidence of another planet could also be caused by many other known factors that have not yet been observed.

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New Horizons on the way to 2014 MU69

On Wednesday New Horizons successfully completed the fourth and last engine burn to change its trajectory to rendezvous with Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 in January 2019.

These were the spacecraft’s longest and most complicated mid-course corrections. They were also achieved at a greater distance from Earth than any previous such maneuver.

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