NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft could be under threat from unforeseen debris collisions as it approaches the dwarf planet Pluto.
The vessel left Earth in 2006 and is due to make a flyby of Pluto in July 2015 and explore the Kuiper Belt.
“We’ve found more and more moons orbiting near Pluto—the count is now up to five,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern in a press release.
“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.”
Stern’s team is carefully probing Pluto’s orbit for debris, and planning a back-up course further from the dwarf planet.
As New Horizons is traveling faster than 30,000 miles per hour, even striking a millimeter-sized grain of debris could incapacitate the craft. “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,” Stern said.
“We’re making plans to stay beyond her lair if we have to,” added Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Young at Southwest Research Institute in the release.
“… 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.”
The final decision may not be reached until the craft is only 10 days away from Pluto.
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