NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently took the closest images ever of a distant Kuiper Belt object, demonstrating its ability to observe numerous such bodies over the next several years if NASA approves an extended mission into the Kuiper Belt.
In a short animation, consisting of four frames taken by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on 2 November, and spaced an hour apart, one can see this 150-kilometre (90-mile)-wide ancient body, officially called 1994 JR1, moving against a background of stars. When these images were made, 1994 JR1 was 5.3 billion kilometres (3.3 billion miles) from the sun, but only 280 million kilometres (170 million miles) away from New Horizons – setting a record, by a factor of at least 15, for the closest-ever picture of a small body in the Kuiper Belt, the solar system’s “third zone” beyond the inner, rocky planets and outer, icy gas giants.
Mission scientists plan to use images like these to study many more ancient Kuiper Belt objects from New Horizons if an extended mission is approved. New Horizons flew through the Pluto system on 14 July, making the first close-up observations of Pluto and its family of five moons. The spacecraft is on course for a close flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on 1 January 2019.