New Horizons breaks Voyager 1’s record for most distant images from Earth
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft broke yet another record by capturing the most distant images from Earth, photographing an open star cluster along with several dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) and centaurs with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
The open star cluster known as the “Wishing Well” was imaged when New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion km) from Earth on December 5, 2017, breaking Voyager 1‘s 27-year record. That record was set on February 14, 1990, when Voyager 1 looked back at the solar system and took 60 photographs that were subsequently put together to create the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth.
Voyager 1 captured these images at a distance of 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion km) from Earth. They were the last photographs the probe took before its cameras were shut down.
Since then, no spacecraft has been in a position to break Voyager 1‘s record – until now.
Just two hours after breaking the nearly three-decade-old record, New Horizons broke its own record, photographing two small KBOs, 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 from an even more distant location.
New Horizons is speeding toward its second target, 2014 MU69, a KBO one billion miles beyond Pluto, which it will encounter on New Year’s Day 2019, covering a distance of more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million km) per day.
The spacecraft, which conducted a historic flyby of Pluto in July 2015, is now in its extended mission, which also involves distant observations of at least 24 objects, including dwarf planets, KBOs, and centaurs.
Mission scientists plan to use images of these objects, captured by LORRI, to determine their shapes, sizes, and surface properties.
They will also use LORRI to search the vicinity of MU69 for any objects that could potentially be hazardous to the spacecraft, such as moons, rings, and other debris. A similar search was done of the region around Pluto prior to the 2015 flyby.
Only the fifth spacecraft to travel beyond the solar system’s gas giant planets, after Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, New Horizons is now continuously measuring plasma, dust, and neutral gas in its environment.
Following a December 9, 2017, course correction maneuver to refine New Horizons‘ journey to MU69, the spacecraft was put into hibernation on December 21. It will be woken up on June 4 to start preparations for its MU69 flyby.
“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.”
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.