NASA will use Hubble to search for targets beyond Pluto

Telescope will find next exploration targets for New Horizons spacecraft

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope will begin searching for an object beyond Pluto that a spacecraft can explore next summer.

The space agency's New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, is on what NASA calls an edge-of-the-solar system mission. The spacecraft now is on its way to Pluto, which was classified as a planet for 75 years until it was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2006.

New Horizons, which is set to fly past Pluto and its moons in July 2015, has already logged more than 3 billion miles on its historic voyage to send back information about worlds on the outskirts of the solar system. It flew around the moons of Jupiter, before heading deeper into space.

NASA has never before sent a spacecraft to Pluto, so next summer's flyby will be a first.

Hubble comes into play as NASA figures out what the spacecraft will explore after it visits Pluto.

The space telescope will focus on a small area of sky in the area known as the Kuiper Belt for the outbound spacecraft to visit. The Kuiper Belt is a vast debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system's formation 4.6 billion years ago.

NASA noted that a sizeable object in the Kuiper Belt has never been seen up close because the belt is so far from the sun, stretching out to a distance of 5 billion miles into a never-before-visited frontier of the solar system.

Hubble is scheduled to scan an area near the constellation Sagittarius, searching for objects of interest. But this won't be an easy task for Hubble and the scientists that manage it.

Hubble is powerful enough to see galaxies near the horizon of the universe but finding an object in the Kuiper Belt is akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, according to NASA. A Kuiper Belt object is generally about the size of Manhattan Island and as dark as charcoal.

Astronomers working around the globe have put in requests to use the space telescope, but there are far more requests than Hubble can handle in a year. The applications are reviewed by a group of scientists who look for projects that call on Hubble's unique capabilities and cannot be handled by ground-based telescopes.

NASA noted that Hubble was used for the New Horizons mission before it was launched about eight years ago, searching the skies for objects that the spacecraft could target. Hubble, for instance, discovered four small moons that orbit Pluto and its largest satellite, Charon. The telescope also was used to create a detailed map of Pluto's surface. The map will be used to plan New Horizons' work to capture close-up photos during the 2015 flyby.

The space telescope has been making a lot of progress in space exploration.

Last December, Hubble spotted a huge water plume emanating from the south pole of Europa, the sixth-closest moon to Jupiter and the sixth-largest moon in the solar system.

NASA's 2015 proposed budget includes funding for a robotic mission to study this new find on Europa.

NASA is looking to launch the first of a series of robotic missions to Europa in the mid 2020s.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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