Spaceflight Insider

New Horizons conducts parallax experiment; team searches for KBOs

More than five billion miles from Earth and over 14 years past launch, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is conducting an experiment measuring the distance to two nearby stars while mission scientists are using Earth-based telescopes to search for new Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) for the spacecraft to study.

On April 22 and 23, as part of a citizen participation project, New Horizons will image the stars Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359. These are the closest stars to our own solar system, at distances of 4.2 and 7.9 light years respectively. Both are low-mass red dwarfs.

Observatories and amateur astronomers on Earth will image those same stars on the same two nights. The two sets of images will be combined via computer software to display their parallax, or apparent change in position as seen from two different locations. By measuring the distance to a star or planet from two separate locations, scientists are able to determine the exact positions of these objects.

Because New Horizons is so far from Earth, Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 appear to be in different positions when viewed by the spacecraft as opposed to when viewed from Earth. 

The New Horizons team plans to produced stereo images of each star field featuring the stars “popping out” due to the changed perspectives between the spacecraft and Earth. Three-D images will be released sometime in May.

This summer, the mission team plans to use Japan’s Subaru telescope and the Gemini and Keck telescopes to search for KBOs to be studied from a distance. The spacecraft has been studying KBOs since 2016 but has found only about 20 so far. Mission scientists hope the Earth-based observations will reveal up to four times as many objects. While these tiny KBOs will appear only as points of light to the spacecraft, its instruments will be capable of imaging them and determining their shapes, surface compositions, rotations, and possible natural satellites.

Because these KBOs are so small and so far away, such measurements cannot be conducted from Earth.

Mission scientists also hope to find a KBO close enough to the spacecraft to conduct a third close flyby, after the 2015 close approach to Pluto and the 2019 close approach to KBO Arrokoth. Target choices are limited because the spacecraft has only a small amount of fuel to divert toward another flyby.

A recent engineering review found that every system and science instrument on the spacecraft is functioning as well as it did at the time of the probe’s launch in 2006. Mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, reported that researchers hope to upgrade software on six of the spacecraft’s seven science instruments, increasing these instruments’ capabilities.

Upgrade options and costs are currently being explored. After being tested on Earth, the selected upgrades will be transmitted across the solar system to New Horizons approximately a year from now.

Stern also reported that a 24-chapter book comprising all the technical knowledge gained from the Pluto flyby will be published by the University of Arizona Space Science Series. Titled The Pluto System After New Horizons and over 1,000 pages long, the compendium of knowledge on the Pluto system is expected to be published by the end of this year.


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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