New Horizons Takes Closest Image Ever of a Kuiper Belt Object

The New Horizons spacecraft is already 209,437,000 km (130,138,000 miles) past Pluto (as of Dec. 4, 2015), making it 5,226,950,000 km (3,247,880,000 miles) from Earth. So, yes, it’s way out there. Recently, it took the closest images ever of a distant Kuiper Belt object, setting a record by a factor of at least 15, according to NASA. The team says this image demonstrates the spacecraft’s ability to observe numerous similar bodies over the next several years.

The object spotted by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is called 1994 JR1, or also Plutino 15810. It is a 90-mile (150-kilometer)-wide ancient body. This animation was created from 4 images taken on Nov. 2, spaced an hour apart.

When these images were taken, 1994 JR1 was 3.3 billion miles (5.3 billion km) from the Sun, but only 170 million miles (280 million km) away from New Horizons.

1994 JR1 is an interesting object, as it also is an “accidental quasi-satellite” of Pluto, meaning it is in a specific type of co-orbital configuration (1:1 orbital resonance) with Pluto, and it will stay close to the dwarf planet for about 350,000 years.

You can read a paper about 1994 JR1 here.

The New Horizons team is still waiting to hear if NASA will approve an extended mission into the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft is already headed for a close flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019, and maybe more, if all goes well and funding is approved.

Source: New Horizons

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

View Comments

  • So.. Pluto-Charon is an "accidental quasi-satellite" of 1994 JR1? Isn't it Neptune that rules them both?

  • I wonder if we'll ever send a manned mission out that far? All we have to do is find a reason to do that?

    • A spacefaring society doesn't need its planet anymore. It lifts off of it, like a butterfly leaves its cocoon. They just build a spaceship and live there, not to land on some poisonous infectious dirty hostile rock. And then they put their spaceship where there's free energy available (yes, they "put" the spaceship, that's a technical term in shipping, ehum). I think the party, if there is any, is at the supermassive black hole. Not so much at the tiny ice cubes in Kuiper Belts. And of course I don't really have any idea of what I am talking about.

  • So now, Pluto is NOT a Kuiper belt object. Got it. I think.

    Side question: is there a place where we can go or a form we can fill out to request NASA get its doggoned story lines straight?

    • Fact check: The NASA has it's lines straight. The headline you're complaining came from Universe Today.
      "New Horizons’ Camera Captures a Wandering Kuiper Belt Object" is how NASA labeled their story.Abd refer to JR1 as "closet ever *distant* KBO".....

      • Headlines aren't the problem. As Aubry points out below, Pluto is often labeled a KBO by scientists (especially by those seeking to distinguish it from the other traditional planets), and NASA is a frequent participant in that practice.

        Either Pluto is a KBO (rendering the article's claim laughably false) or it isn't (removing another distinction between it and the other planets in our system). NASA should pick one and have done with it.

        • Let's be careful where we lay blame, okay? I'm pretty sure this isn't a deliberate snub on the part of NASA, just a mistake by the article writer, Tricia Talbert.

          • Once again, your name falls victim to my auto-correct; my apologies, Aubri.

            I'm fairly certain that, since her article appears on NASA's website, her information was at least glanced at, if not actually supplied or edited by said agency. I couldn't say whether anyone/anything was being "deliberately snubbed" or not, but after many years of labeling Pluto a KBO I think one might be forgiven a moment's confusion over the use of the term; the phrase "Other than Pluto, ..." solves the issue quite easily.

  • making it 5,226,950,000 km (3,247,880,000 miles) from Earth...
    Nancy, I wish we could agree on using our earthly distances (km / miles) below a certain distance.. i.e. 1AU. Above that please use AUs, Light hours light days n such... makes it easier to understand.
    5,226,950,000 km = 34.94 AU.

  • I guess I was surprised that a small body like Pluto could maintain a moon (or co-body?) at more than 130 million miles.

    • I feel sorely in need of a more definitive explanation of “accidental quasi-satellite”. I don'r remember ever having heard or read that term before.
      What is an “accidental quasi-satellite”, exactly? Is the body in orbit around Pluto or not?

      • A quasi-satellite is an object that shares an orbital period with the "parent" body but is not actually in orbit. From the parent body, it appears to make a retrograde loop around it, but this is an illusion produced by the similar but independent orbits around the Sun. Over a few thousand orbits they'll generally slip into a horseshoe orbit, a Lagrange point, or some other orbital resonance and stop being a quasi-satellite.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quasi-satellite

  • Nancy, my question of yesterday concerning "an accidental quasi-satellite" was accidentally entered as a reply to "msadesign".
    It was meant to be directed at you. Can you answer it, please?

    • Hi Pete,

      My guess from the way things are worded is that it orbits somewhere near Pluto's L2, but that is just a guess. That would explain the "quasi-satellite" status and the 1:1 orbit resonance anyway.

    • Hi Pete-- these are minor bodies temporarily trapped in orbit. The 1:1 resonance means that at some point it will likely be ejected from orbit (you can read details about that in the paper I referenced in the article.) They mention that this resonance is part of the process of "clearing the neighborhood," that is part of the current definition of a planet. The paper says "quasi-satellite resonant phase is not restricted to small bodies orbiting major planets but is possible for dwarf planets/asteroids too." So more confusion about that "clearing the orbit" part!

      • Nancy is absolutely right, Fig. 1 of the paper helps out a LOT when trying to visualize what's going on here. This is not the typically stable orbit of an object such as one of the Trojans which orbit Jupiter, nor an object orbiting like the SOHO spacecraft orbits Earth (which was my 1st thought, only outside of Pluto instead of inside).

        As I look at it, it actually reminds me of the solar-centric transfer orbits used to get craft from Terra to Mars...

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