Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope will begin searching for an icy world beyond Pluto that could use some exploring, the space agency announced Monday. The goal: finding a place for the fast-moving New Horizons spacecraft to explore after it visits Pluto next year. (Related: “Global Selfie to Be Beamed to Outer Space.”)
Hubble will begin scouring the patch of sky beyond Pluto that’s roughly the size of the full moon, looking for at least two comet belt objects, also known as Kuiper Belt objects. The big cometary bodies include the dwarf planet Makemake. If Hubble’s search is successful, more space telescope viewing time will be devoted to finding a suitable object for New Horizons to explore after its visit to Pluto next year.
A suitable Kuiper Belt object might be about the size of Manhattan and charcoal black, making it very hard to spot, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which manages the space telescope. These frozen worlds are considered leftovers from the dawn of the solar system, and exploring them may reveal conditions dating to the sun’s infancy.
“Hubble is effectively being used to support humankind’s initial reconnaissance of the solar system,” STScI director Matt Mountain said in a statement on the decision. Hubble time is one of the most carefully rationed commodities in the world of astronomy, requiring intense competition before observation hours are booked.
Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.