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Science and Innovations

One Year Out, NASA Spacecraft Aims for Kuiper Belt Object


A year from today, NASA scientists will have a chance to explore a small space rock in the outer solar system. It will be the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

The object is located in the Kuiper Belt four billion miles from Earth. It’s the next stop for NASA’s New Horizons, the first spacecraft to capture up-close photographs of Pluto.

Will Grundy of Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory is on the mission team. "We’d really like to see how the solar system formed, and to do that you have go to the places where there are leftovers from that time, and the Kuiper Belt is this large disk of debris outside the giant planets that is chock-full of these objects," he says.

Credit NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/James Tuttle Keane
Astronomers were able to see the shape of the object by plotting lines of starlight. The star "winks out" as it passes behind the object and its moon.

Grundy says not much is known about this object yet. It’s dark red in color and has a lumpy shape. It might be actually two objects in close orbit, and it may have at least one tiny moon.

Scientists will celebrate the New Years’ Day flyby from mission control in Maryland next year.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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