NASA Captures the Farthest Images Ever Taken From Earth With New Horizons Spacecraft
While we continue to bask in the afterglow of Elon Musk's historic Falcon Heavy SpaceX launch, it's easy to forget that NASA makes history virtually every day with innovations and milestones that continue to shape the future of the aerospace industry.
Such is the case with its New Horizons spacecraft, which made history by turning its telescopic camera toward a field of stars on December 5 when it snapped a photograph of the "Wishing Well" galactic star cluster 3.79 billion miles away from Earth. As of this writing, it's the farthest image ever made from Earth.
The image was made by the spacecraft's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), only to best itself again soon after. "LORRI broke its own record just two hours later with images of Kuiper Belt objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85—further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you're covering more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) of space each day," says NASA.
The record was previously held by NASA's Voyager 1 when it captured the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth more than 27 years ago on Valentine's Day, 1990. The Voyager was 3.75 billion miles from Earth when that composite of 60 images looking back at the solar system was taken, and it's cameras were shut off shortly after.
Since New Horizons is just the fifth spacecraft to speed beyond the outer planets, many of its activities have set distance records, too. "On Dec. 9 it carried out the most-distant course-correction maneuver ever, as the mission team guided the spacecraft toward a close encounter with a KBO named 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019," says NASA. "That New Year's flight past MU69 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history, happening one billion miles beyond the Pluto system—which New Horizons famously explored in July 2015."
New Horizons has been on an extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system just beyond Neptune's orbit, since 2017. It's now hibernating until it readies for launch again on June 4, but the spacecraft hopes to observe at least two-dozen other Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), dwarf planets and "Centaurs," or KBOs in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets, upon its return later this year. "Mission scientists study the images to determine the objects' shapes and surface properties, and to check for moons and rings," says NASA. "The spacecraft also is making nearly continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path."
Scientists also think that a ninth planet in our solar system's outer edges might explain how several KBOs have the same stretched, elliptical orbits that point in the same direction, with the same 30-degree tilt.