Ultima Thule is more than 100 million miles away from Earth. Although it might not look like anything from here, NASA’s New Horizons proves otherwise.
The New Horizons became the first spacecraft to manage a flyby in Pluto in July 2015. Since then, its mission has been prolonged so it could explore the outer Solar System even more. The probe delivered the first glimpse of Ultima Thule on Aug. 16. The 48 images were transmitted through NASA’s Deep Space Network.
At around 6 billion kilometers away from the planet, the photos serve as the farthest images ever captured. It took the record from Voyager 1 that captured the photographs of the Earth and other neighboring planets from almost the same distance 28 years ago.
Furthermore, the Ultima flyby will be the farthest exploration of any part in space. This will eventually break the old record of New Horizons at Pluto in 2015.
2014 MU69 is the official name of Ultima Thule. It is part of a field of icy detritus left over from the planets’ formation billions of years ago called the Kuiper Belt. The photographs show the Ultima Thule surrounded by bright stars that are scattered around the landscape.
“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,” stated Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist and LORRI principal investigator, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
He also stated the photo is filled with bright background stars that make it immensely difficult to detect faint objects.
The team behind the spacecraft will use the images to serve as a guide to the New Horizons when it flies by Ultima Thule. New Horizons is expected to approach the icy world on the first day of 2019, at 12:33 a.m. ET. This will finally bring focus to Ultima Thule for the first time ever.
According to scientists, finding out more about the Ultima Thule will help them build stronger theories about how the solar system was formed. What is known about this part of space has the potential to change the view of how the solar system functions.
“We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible,” stated Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.
“We’ve now traveled almost 90 percent of the way from Pluto to Ultima Thule, and making final preparations for the flyby this winter,” said Alice Bowman, mission operations manager of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.