It’s taken eight years, but NASA’s New Horizons probe is finally closing in on Pluto — and now the space agency thinks it's found some targets even further out to explore in the coming years.
The New Horizons probe was launched in 2006 to explore Pluto, and it’s set to arrive in the Pluto system for a flyby in July 2015. The mission’s goal is to return the first-ever close-up shots of Pluto and its moons. But since it’s already out there, NASA is eyeballing a few new targets to keep the craft flying.
Space reports that the Hubble Telescope has spotted three objects beyond Pluto that could be explored next by New Horizons, one of which the team says is “definitely” reachable, while more research is needed to determine whether the probe could make it to the other two objects.
Though Pluto is the main mission, the team had always hoped they could use the $700 million New Horizons initiative to check out the ring of frigid bodies beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt. A flyby of those objects could open up a whole new area of research, as scientists believe those Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) were left behind from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Plus, since they’re so far away from the sun and have never been warmed, they should be in relatively the same condition.
The team used the Hubble telescope to check out potential objects they could visit next, and found the new targets approximately 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. They range in size from 15 to 34 miles wide, which is pretty darn small, celestially speaking, and is why it’s taken so long to spot them. Once it does a bit more research, the team plans to file a mission plan with NASA next year for the additional flyby.