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New Horizons seeks help for Uranus and Neptune observations

A composite of Hubble images of Uranus and Neptune. Credit: NASA, ESA, Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley), Andrew I. Hsu (UC Berkeley)

A composite of Hubble images of Uranus and Neptune. Credit: NASA, ESA, Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley), Andrew I. Hsu (UC Berkeley)

NASA’s New Horizons mission is seeking assistance from amateur astronomers in observations of ice giants Uranus and Neptune, which will be conducted in September.

At the same time the spacecraft looks back on the two ice giants, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope will observe them from Earth using its color camera. Mission scientists hope the three-way observations will shed light on the way heat is transferred from these planets’ rocky cores to their gaseous surfaces.

“By combining the information New Horizons collects in space with data from telescopes on Earth, we can supplement and even strengthen our models to uncover the mysteries swirling in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. Even from amateur astronomer telescopes as small as 16 inches, these complementary observations can be extremely important,” said mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

New Horizons is currently deep within the Kuiper Belt, more than 5 billion miles (8 billion kilometers) from Earth. In addition to its two flyby targets, Pluto and Arrokoth, and numerous Kuiper Belt Objects at a distance, it has also studied the solar wind, circumsolar dust and the cosmic optical background.

Viewers who take part in the observations of Uranus and Neptune are encouraged to look for and follow bright areas on the surfaces of both planets. Ground-based observers have the advantage of being able to observe the planets much longer than either New Horizons or Hubble can.

According to the project’s webpage, which provides important details for ground-based observers, “Observations of Uranus could include measuring the current brightness distribution across the planet, along with the possible presence of discrete clouds. For Neptune, they could include characterizing unusually bright features that provide a better temporal baseline for — and even help interpret — the New Horizons and Hubble Space Telescope measurements.”

Observers are asked to post the images they capture along with the dates they are taken and filter passbands used on Facebook and Twitter/X using the hashtag #NHIceGiants. Mission scientists will collect all images and data posted with this hashtag.

Images of Uranus and Neptune captured by Hubble will be posted online on the Mikulsky Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) site at the end of September. Those taken by New Horizons will be made public at year’s end.


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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