The Kuiper belt is similar to the asteroid belt although 20 times widers and twenty to two hundred times more massive. Within the belt are small bodies and left overs from when the Solar system was forming. Kuiper belt objects are composed largely of frozen volatiles (termed "ices"), such as methane, ammonia and water.
Within the belt lies the newly reclassified dwarf planet, Pluto. Pluto is composed primarily of rock and ice. It is about approximately one-sixth the mass of the Earth's Moon and one-third its volume. Five moons have been discovered orbiting the dwarf planet.
On January 2006, NASA launched its New Horizons Spacecraft which will reach Pluto on 2015. Scientists wants to learn more about Pluto's atmosphere and also to map out the surface of the planet as well as Charon, one of Pluto's moons. Afterwards, the spacecraft will then move on to survey Pluto's neighborhood: the atmosphere, ancient materials and small bodies of the Kuiper Belt
Video: NASA Mission Update: New Horizon
With just two years left before the rendezvous, NASA's science team are getting worried that debris within Pluto's system may damage the New Horizons and put its mission objective in jeopardy.
"We've found more and more moons orbiting near Pluto — the count is now up to five," says Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and an associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. "And we've come to appreciate that those moons, as well as those not yet discovered, act as debris generators populating the Pluto system with shards from collisions between those moons and small Kuiper Belt objects."
"Because our spacecraft is traveling so fast — more than 30,000 miles per hour — a collision with a single pebble, or even a millimeter-sized grain, could cripple or destroy New Horizons," adds New Horizons Project Scientist Dr. Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, "so we need to steer clear of any debris zones around Pluto."
To better prepare for the mission, scientists are using computer simulations, powerful telescopes, space probes, and even the Hubble Telescope to map out where the debris may be located. They are also plotting out alternative routes that New Horizons can take that will ensure the safety of the craft and also preserve its mission objectives.
"We're worried that Pluto and its system of moons, the object of our scientific affection, may actually be a bit of a black widow," says Stern.
"We're making plans to stay beyond her lair if we have to," adds Deputy Project Scientist Dr. Leslie Young of Southwest Research Institute. "From what we have determined, we can still accomplish our main objectives if we have to fly a 'bail-out trajectory' to a safer distance from Pluto. Although we'd prefer to go closer, going farther from Pluto is certainly preferable to running through a dangerous gauntlet of debris, and possibly even rings, that may orbit close to Pluto among its complex system of moons."
Stern concludes: "We may not know whether to fire our engines on New Horizons and bail out to safer distances until just 10 days before reaching Pluto, so this may be a bit of a cliff-hanger. Stay tuned."
Southwest Research Institute
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
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