After nine years of travel at roughly 36,000 miles per hour, for a total of about four billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will reach its intended rendezvous with Pluto just over 53 weeks from now, on 14 July 2015. But after that, then what?
Assistance from the Hubble Telescope
New Horizons cost NASA over $700M, as well as a pantload of hassle just to get the thing launched, so they’re not just going to let it sail off into infinite space. Since Pluto’s ignominious demotion to a “dwarf planet” (which happened just a few months after New Horizons’ launch, coincidentally), it has been considered the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, an asteroid belt-like collection of frozen objects distantly orbiting the sun.
With that in mind, scientists are trying to locate another object in the Kuiper Belt that New Horizons can study once it passes Pluto. Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) are plentiful—they likely number in the billions—but are difficult to actually see and track. Roughly 1,500 KBOs have been identified in the past 22 years, but none of them are on a trajectory that matches up with the spacecraft.
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA scientists will begin scanning the sky in the hopes of finding a KBO that is on the right path. Because of the list of other researchers waiting to use Hubble is a long one, the New Horizons team will have a limited window in which to search. They will have 200 Hubble orbits, at about 90 minutes each, to find their mark. And even that short time is not guaranteed.
“We get 40 orbits right off the bat,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons’ Principle Investigator, “but we have to find at least two new objects in that time or they don’t give us the other 160.”
Because it is extremely unlikely that Stern and his team will spot a KBO that will be directly in New Horizons’ flight path, trajectory adjustments will have to be made. “We have to fire [its engines] right after Pluto,” Stern said. “In order to do it accurately, we have to track the new object for months to account for its orbit. We have to find the object by the end of summer, more or less.”
- Time: “Fine, You Reached Pluto. So What’s Next?”
- Christian Science Monitor: “After Pluto, what’s next for NASA’s New Horizons probe?”