Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
New Horizons shocked the world as it blasted past Pluto in the summer of 2015, sending back incredible images of the dwarf planet that gave scientists a new depth of understanding about the solar system. According to a report from CS Monitor, however, New Horizons is far from done exploring.
NASA announced that the space probe had captured some of the first scientific data about 1994 JR1, an object in the Kuiper Belt roughly 90-miles wide and resting some 3 billion miles from the sun. The object was captured by New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from 69 million miles away.
The finding is the closest recorded encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object, or KBO, in the history of the exploration of the solar system. The passing, recorded on April 7 and April 8, beat the space probe’s previous record of capturing the object from 170 million miles away last year.
According to Simon Porter, a researcher on the SwRI New Horizons team, “Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO.”
Scientists still don’t know much about JR1, but believe that upon further study of the object’s rotational period it could prove to be a distant satellite of Pluto. New Horizons researchers analyzed light curve data taken from JR1 to confirm that a day on the object last just about 5.4 hours. By contrast, it takes Pluto almost 30 times longer to complete a single rotation.
The finding has made scientists excited to continue using the New Horizons space probe to search the outer reaches of the solar system and potentially study more KBOs. Team member John Spencer says the probe will soon be on a path that would allow scientists to image around 20 additional KBOs.
A NASA press release describing the details of the study can be found here.