New Horizons breaks record for taking furthest images from Earth

Spacecraft is studying the Kuiper Belt environment and will image at least 24 other KBOs.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Feb 10, 2018
On its way to its second target, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has taken the furthest images ever captured from Earth.

The probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has photographed an open star cluster known as the "Wishing Well" along with several distant dwarf planets, KBOs, and centaurs (objects that have characteristics of both asteroids and comets).

When the star cluster was imaged on December 5, 2017, New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion km) from Earth, a distance greater than that from which NASA's Voyager 1 probe was when it took the 60 images that were made into the famous composite image of Earth known as the "Pale Blue Dot."

Those photographs were obtained in February 1990 when Voyager was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion km) from Earth. They were the last captured by the probe before its cameras were shut down.

Just two hours after New Horizons' LORRI broke the Voyager record, it surpassed its own record by imaging two KBOs, 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85, from an even more distant vantage point.

Speeding through space at 700,000 miles (1.1 million km) a day, even during its hibernation period, New Horizons, which flew by Pluto in July 2015, is set to make its closest approach to MU69 on New Year's Day 2019. That KBO is located one billion miles beyond Pluto.

New Horizons is currently in an extended mission, which includes observations of at least 24 objects, including other KBOs, dwarf planets, and centaurs. The latter are in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the solar system's gas giant planets.

From LORRI images of distant objects, mission scientists attempt to determine these objects' shapes, sizes, and surface properties.

LORRI images are also playing a crucial role in the search for rings, moons, and other debris in the vicinity of MU69, which could potentially pose a hazard to the spacecraft.

As the first probe to traverse the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons and its science instruments are also studying the region's dust, gas, and plasma.

"New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts--first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,"said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "And now, we've been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history."

On June 4, the probe will be wakened from hibernation to begin preparations for its visit to MU69.





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