Since we have now amassed dozens of new Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) discoveries, its time for some visualizations!
As part of our ongoing effort to characterize our current discoveries, as well as to prepare to make new discoveries, I have been developing a suite of software tools to organize and classify the measurements we have acquired – both those from our own internal efforts, as well as those contributed by hundreds of the Ice Hunters’ citizen scientists. We have obtained and catalogued approximately 800 unique observations of dozens of new Kuiper Belt Objects, with data taken from the Magellan 6.5m, Subaru 8m, and CFHT 3.5m observatories.
Part of my classification software includes estimating the close-approach trajectory of each discovered object with respect to the New Horizons spacecraft. It occurred to me that this could be turned into a neat animation – so here it is!
This animation shows the flight of the New Horizons spacecraft from 2010 to 2023 through this cloud of newly discovered Kuiper Belt Objects revealed by our search for a New Horizons post-Pluto encounter target. Each KBO’s position and motion has been computed from its best known orbit solution. For many objects these orbit solutions remain relatively uncertain, so the exact flyby geometry may change as we acquire new and better data.
The yellow triangle indicates the position of the New Horizons spacecraft. The large cyan circle marks Pluto’s position. The small gray points are the new Kuiper Belt Objects we discovered in the 2011-2012 observing seasons, while the [purple] points are new Kuiper Belt Objects discovered in 2004-2005 observing season data by members of the public through the “Ice Hunters” citizen science effort.
The left panels show a top-down (i.e., from above the plane of the Earth’s orbit) and side-on view of the spacecraft trajectory and the Kuiper Belt Objects discovered in our survey so far. Distance scales from the Sun are illustrated with gray lines, and the pericentric (closest point to the Sun) and apocentric (farthest point from the Sun) distances of Uranus and Neptune are marked with dashed white lines.
The right panel shows the Kuiper Belt objects from the perspective of the New Horizons spacecraft on its actual trajectory, with the view rendered as facing directly outward from the Sun. The illustrated size of each KBO scales with distance from the spacecraft, but the sizes are not to scale (almost all of the Kuiper Belt Objects so far detected will be unresolved by the instruments onboard the spacecraft). For any Kuiper Belt object which passes within 2 AU of the spacecraft, the range in AU (1 AU = the average distance between the Earth and the Sun) is shown.
In the animation, a “flyby” sound is generated by the distance and flyby geometry of each object. Since there is no sound in space, this sound is there purely to enhance the impression of motion through the Kuiper Belt.
Two long-range flybys with Kuiper Belt Objects occur before the Pluto encounter, one late 2013 and one in early 2015. It may be possible for New Horizons to make distant observations of these two objects, though neither is large enough to be resolved.
The “cluster” of distant flybys that begins in June of 2018 is due to the passage of New Horizons into the “cold classical Kuiper Belt,” a region of space densely populated by Kuiper Belt Objects: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Kuiper_belt_object
The hunt for ideal New Horizons encounter targets continues, and future versions of this animation will be updated as new Kuiper Belt objects are discovered.
Follow New Horizons on Twitter: @NewHorizons2015
Follow Alex Parker on Twitter: @Alex_Parker
Alex Harrison Parker – New Horizons Outer Solar System Science Fellow, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The 2011-2012 New Horizons Kuiper Belt Object search team & contributors
(alphabetical by first name)
Alan Stern, Brian McLeod, Cesar Fuentes, Darin Ragozzine, David Borncamp, David Osip, David Tholen, David Trilling, Francesca DeMeo, Jean-Marc Petit, JJ Kavelaars, John Spencer, Lawrence Wasserman, Marc Buie, Matthew Holman, Richard Binzel, Scott Sheppard, Sebastian Fabbro, Stephen Gwyn, and Susan Benecchi.
A partial list of Ice Hunters who contributed to the 2004-2005 discoveries can be found here. A full list of contributors will be forthcoming – we’re sorting in usernames to join the folks who released their real names).
User Charlie pointed out that the Ice Hunters points were mis-labeled in the description – this has been fixed! Thanks.