NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has captured an image of a distant, unidentified, spectacular mini-world aglow in the frigid depths of the remote and mysterious Kuiper Belt and believed to be among the relics of the nascent period of the solar systems. Scientists are optimistic they will be able to explore more of these enigmatic wandering objects, which otherwise elude the common grasp of stargazers.
The snapshot has been captured in four different frames by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), according to NASA. The mystery object named 1994 JR1, located approximately 5.3 billion kilometres from the sun is a minor or dwarf planet inhabiting the distant icy wilderness of the Kuiper belt. Also referred to as Plutino 15810, the object was originally spotted in 1994.
According to NASA, the telescopic camera (LORRI) is amongst the seven science instruments designed for the Pluto flyby mission.
“The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is an instrument that was designed, fabricated, and qualified for the New Horizons mission to the outermost planet Pluto, its giant satellite Charon, and the Kuiper Belt, which is the vast belt of icy bodies extending roughly from Neptune’s orbit out to 50 astronomical units (AU)”
The Kuiper belt is believed to be among the largest known formations going back to the nascent era of the solar system. More than a thousand icy objects are known to inhabit this distant cluster of frozen entities lurking at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit, the farthest of planets from the Sun. These range from miniature rocks to large dwarf planets measuring thousands of kilometres. It is estimated that the Kuiper belt is even more massive than the Great Asteroid Belt, where the greatest concentration of nearly 400,000 designated asteroids populate the fiery zones between Mars and Jupiter.
According to an Oxford Journal report published a few year ago, the elusive object is a quasi- satellite, a minor planet that shares the semi-major axis and the mean longitude of their host planet.
“1994 JR1 is currently an accidental quasi-satellite of Pluto and it will remain as such for nearly 350 000 years. By accidental we mean that the quasi-satellite phase is triggered (or terminated) not by a direct gravitational influence in the form of a discrete close encounter, but as a result of a resonance. Our finding confirms that the quasi-satellite resonant phase is not restricted to small bodies orbiting major planets but is possible for dwarf planets/asteroids too”.
According to NASA, New Horizons Spacecraft is currently 106 million miles (170.6 million km) beyond Pluto. Introduced in 2006, it zipped past Jupiter for a gravity boost the following year and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons this summer. As part of an anticipated extended mission, the spacecraft upon NASA’s sanction may venture out farther into the Kuiper Belt.
Dwarf planets such as the 1994JR1 can be spotted by observing cosmic events namely a “stellar eclipse” when the objects advance in front of a distant star prompting aberrant dips in its brightness. For instance, in November 2010, starlight from NOMAD1 0856-0015072 located in the Cetus constellation momentarily dimmed, leading to the discovery of the distant dwarf planet Eris. The revelation ultimately prompted scientists to challenge Pluto’s erstwhile stature as a major planet orbiting the sun. Pluto is now recognized as a plutoid, a dwarf planet wandering farther out in space beyond the azure and beautiful Neptune.
Such planets are formed from gas and dust particles in protoplanetary disks. The details of such a transition which happened around our sun as early as 4.6 billion years ago have not yet been best understood.
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