Boulder‘s Southwest Research Institute lands major Hubble project

Boulder‘s Southwest Research Institute has been awarded the largest Hubble Space Telescope solar system program ever by NASA, with 206 of Hubble‘s orbits around Earth to be devoted to the project.

Known as the Solar Systems Origins Legacy Survey, it will focus on Kuiper Belt objects, particularly binary populations, celestial cousins of the bilobed Ultima Thule, which the New Horizons mission flew past late New Year‘s Eve.

“The Kuiper Belt is a unique remnant of the solar system‘s primordial planetesimal disk,” Alex Parker, the SwRI planetary scientist leading the survey, said in a statement. “This cold, calm region has preserved an extraordinarily large population of binary objects, particularly those where the two objects have similar mass.”

The Hubble telescope orbits about 350 miles above the Earth‘s surface, circling it every 97 minutes, according to a news release.

The Kuiper Belt, a distant region at the edge of our solar system, is viewed by scientists as a reservoir of material that contains the building blocks of the planets.

The properties of the Kuiper Belt‘s unique population of binary systems can currently only be accurately measured with Hubble, according to SwRI. SwRI is leading this Hubble project focused on characterizing the binary and color properties of over 200 unique Kuiper Belt Objects. Other team members are spread across the USA, Canada and Northern Ireland.

“These binary systems are powerful tracers of the processes that built the planets,” Parker said. “We will use Hubble to test the theory that many planetesimals formed as binary systems from the get-go, and that today‘s Kuiper Belt binaries did not come from mergers of initially solitary objects.”