When you’re on your way to an historic rendezvous with Pluto, do you really want to be thinking about where you’re going after that? NASA’s New Horizons space probe will fly by Pluto in July 2015 and some unlucky scientists who aren’t working on that great project have been tasked with using the Hubble telescope to find the next space object for New Horizons to visit in the Kuiper Belt.
Because time on the Hubble is restricted due to the vast – some would say astronomical – number of requests, a test scan will be conducted first. Forty orbits of the telescope will be allotted to scan the constellation Sagittarius (the area of the sky where New Horizons is headed) for Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO). The search will be tough because no one has ever seen a KBO up close since the Kuiper Belt is anywhere from 4.5 billion to 7.4 billion miles from the Sun.
A suitable KBO will be at least the size of an Earth city but, because they’re so far away and probably dark in color, the plan is to pan the sky at the predicted speed of KBO movement, which will differentiate their pinpoints of dim light from the streaks of bright light of stars in the background. If at least two possible KBOs are found, an additional 160 orbits will be allocated to search a larger area in Sagittarius about the size of a full moon for the best candidate.
New Horizons investigator Alan Stern is pretty optimistic about finding a new destination for New Horizon.
From the total of 200 orbits, we have a 95 percent chance of finding one or more targetable KBOs. We follow that, or those, and then burn the engine in the fall after the Pluto flyby.
The close encounter of the KBO kind could take place as early as 2016 but is more likely to happen after 2021.
No doubt about it – the team of Hubble and New Horizons is definitely ready to rock and roll.