The New Horizons spacecraft has glimpsed the mysterious Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule for the first time.
After spending quite a bit of time observing Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons has a new course set towards the Kuiper Belt. More specifically, its goal is the distant object Ultima Thule — an object that sits roughly 44 AU from the Sun.
Though it is still 107 million miles from Ultima Thule, the craft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager managed to snap roughly four dozen images of the celestial body. It then sent that data back to Earth, where NASA scientists used it to create a composite image and discern the dim object from all the background stars.
That revealed Ultimate Thule sits where astronomers originally thought it did, showing New Horizons is right on track.
“The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects,” said Hal Weaver, a New Horizons project scientist, according to Gizmodo. “It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter—and easier to see—as the spacecraft gets closer.”
There are two reasons the newly compiled picture is so important. Not only does it give new insight into the Kuiper Belt, but it is also marks the most distant images ever taken from Earth. In addition, New Horizons also showed it has the ability to detect its target, which means the astronomers will be able to adjust the craft if needed.
NASA reports that New Horizons will move past Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019. That passing will mark the most distant object ever visited by a human-built spacecraft and give even more insight into Ultima Thune.
“Our team worked hard to determine if Ultima was detected by LORRI at such a great distance, and the result is a clear yes,” said Alan Stern, a researcher at the Southwest Research Institute, according to Phys.org. “We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima’s doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!”