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New Horizons spots dwarf planet candidate in Kuiper Belt

The moving images reveal Quaoar as it was 4 billion miles from the sun and 1.3 billion miles from the lens of the probe's camera.

By Brooks Hays
New imagery shows a likely dwarf planet called Quaoar on its orbital path 4 billion miles from the sun. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New imagery shows a likely dwarf planet called Quaoar on its orbital path 4 billion miles from the sun. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

BOULDER, Colo., Sept. 2 (UPI) -- Quaoar isn't New Horizons' target, but the probe has been tracking the unique Kuiper Belt object on its way to study 2014 MU69, an ancient object beyond Pluto.

As the NASA probe won't meet 2014 MU69 until 2019, it has plenty of time to snap pictures. Its current trajectory through the Kuiper Belt gives it a unique vantage from which to spot dwarf planet candidates like Quaoar.

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Quaoar stretches some 690 miles across, about half the size of Pluto. The dwarf planet was first identified in 2002. Its moon, Weywot, was spotted in 2007. Scientists have also previously observed signs of water ice on its surface, suggesting Quaoar is host to cryovolcanism.

In July, New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager snapped four photos of the planetary mass. Recently, NASA scientists pieced the images together to create an animation.

The moving images reveal Quaoar as it was 4 billion miles from the sun and 1.3 billion miles from the lens of the probe's camera.

The new images also feature two galaxies, IC 1048 and UGC 09485, in the distance. Because Quaoar is much closer to the probe than IC 1048 and UGC 09485, it appears to be moving across the background of stars. The back-lighting may allow scientists to study the light-scattering properties of Quaoar's surface.

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