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NASA spacecraft spots wandering object in far-off Kuiper Belt

The New Horizons mission followed up its spectacular Pluto flyby by turning its cameras into the Kuiper Belt and witnessing a small object floating across space.

NASA released this animation of a Kuiper Belt object.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

There's something moving way out in space, and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft saw it crawling through the void. A short animation shows an object in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune's orbit, on the move, going about its space business against a backdrop of stars.

The animation consists of four frames, each taken an hour apart. New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager took the pictures on November 2, and NASA released the compilation on Thursday.

The image quality is such that we Earthlings should have a blast imagining far-flung possibilities. It looks like a grainy shot of a UFO. What's actually happening is that the Kuiper Belt is full of asteroids, comets and small icy bodies and this moving object is one of those.

NASA identified the object as 1994 JR1. A scientific paper from 2012 published in the Monthly Notices Letters of the Royal Astronomical Society identifies 1994 JR1 as "an accidental quasi-satellite of Pluto." That means it stays fairly close to Pluto, but doesn't actually orbit the dwarf planet like a moon. Rather, it orbits the sun.

Pluto still holds the record for the largest object in the Kuiper Belt with a diameter of just 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers). Compare that with Earth at about 8,000 miles (12,756 kilometers) in diameter. New Horizon's latest object of interest is a mere 90 miles (145 kilometers) wide.

The size of 1994 JR1 is part of what makes the short animation so intriguing. It was located 170 million miles away from New Horizons when the images were taken. "This sets a record, by a factor of at least 15, for the closest-ever picture of a small body in the Kuiper Belt," NASA notes.

New Horizons launched in 2006 on a mission to study Pluto that culminated in a spectacular flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14. NASA scientists are hoping for a mission extension that will take the spacecraft deeper into the Kuiper Belt to study other objects within the region.