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Hubble scans the Kuiper Belt for New Horizons targets

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The New Horizons probe is about a year away from its flyby of Pluto and its family of moons, but already the hunt is on for further targets, according to a Tuesday story in Space Daily. The Hubble Space Telescope is being drafted to scan a section of the sky to ferret out objects in the Kuiper Belt for the long voyaging space probe to examine. The results of the scan will determine how much longer the New Horizons’ mission will be extended.

The Kuiper Belt is a disc shape region beyond the orbit of Neptune that is potentially the home of hundreds of thousands of icy bodies. Along with the more distant Oort Cloud, Kuiper is the home of comets that occasionally get knocked into paths that bring them closer to the sun, Pluto, once considered a planet in its own right, has recently been reclassified as a “dwarf planet” that is part of the Kuiper Belt.

There is much that is unknown about the Kuiper Belt, due to the fact that it is billions of miles away and that its various objects are relatively dark. The one other Kuiper object that is known is another “dwarf planet” named Eris, slightly smaller than Pluto and with at least one moon named Dysnomia. It was the discovery of Eris in 2005 that led some astronomers to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet, a dubious honor it shares with Eris and Ceres, formally known as an asteroid.

New Horizons was launched in January, 2005, at a time when Pluto was still considered a planet. It contains a variety of instruments that are designed to measure Pluto’s atmosphere, examine it surface, and determine how solar wind interacts with Pluto and its atmosphere, among other things. It is scheduled to fly by Pluto and its five moons in July, 2015.

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