Image: NASA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues to prove its worth. After wowing us with images from deep in the solar system back in 2015, the probe, which has been traveling for more than a decade, recently snapped a pic of its next flyby target, an object in the Kuiper Belt that has been sighted months ahead of the planned close encounter set for New Year’s Day 2019. By all accounts, Ultima Thule is just a piece of space debris, but scientists hope there’s a lot more to this chunk of rock than its cool nickname. These first images are only fueling that hope.

"The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist and LORRI principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “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.” 

The vessel’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) spotted the belt more than 100 million miles away from Ultima Thule while using the spacecraft’s on-board cameras for the first time back in mid-August. This glimpse of the next target is also the first real look at the Kuiper Belt, which is the last portion of the solar system New Horizons is slated to explore. 

So, what is the Kuiper Belt? Well, think the asteroid belt, that loop of debris between Mars and Jupiter, but in this case it’s a massive disk of rock, ice and other planetary junk 20 times wider and anywhere from 20 to 200 times as massive as the one you learned about in grade school. This particular band of space junk also includes the likes of the dwarf planet Pluto and is located on the outer reaches of our solar system. Even getting these first images is the result of years of work and huge investments on NASA’s part.

New Horizons was first cooked up as a way to get a probe to Pluto back in the early 1990s, but the lack of administrative support nearly killed the project. Intense lobbying from the scientific community prompted NASA heads to relent though, and New Horizons was launched in 2006. Since then, the probe has captured images of Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons, before spinning even further into the solar system to snap photos of Pluto that were transmitted to us back in 2015.

New Horizons is now 4 billion miles away from the sun—aka the distance you would travel if you gassed up your car and drove round-trip from here to New York two and a half million times—and the vessel continues to set records during its journey through deep space.

Image: NASA

At this point, grainy composite images may sound as enticing as watching the static on your old tube TV, but you have to admit, once it gets closer there are sure to be some awesome shots of the farthest things something made by mankind has ever seen. Plus, the images of Ultima Thule captured by the spacecraft are the furthest images from the Sun ever taken, beating Voyager 1’s “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth by about .25 billion miles, no big deal.

New Horizons is now hurtling toward Ultima Thule, covering a distance of about 700,000 miles per day, which even if you can’t imagine what that looks like, still seems really, really fast. Once it reaches the recently discovered object, which is just 30 miles wide, New Horizons will give us a much clearer view of the thing. The planned flyby will be the first-ever close-up observation of any object cradled in Kuiper’s giant arms, other than Pluto, and it will be the farthest exploration of any planetary body in history, breaking the record that New Horizons already set in July 2015 with its images showing a heart-like shape on the surface of Pluto.

The photos will also give us the chance to both see Ultima Thule close up and remind everyone that NASA does some pretty cool stuff. The parent program of New Horizons, New Frontiers, was met with a lot of excitement when full-color, and super Instagrammable, images of Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and even Pluto started showing up, and it has achieved a ton of good press for NASA in recent years, a result that is always helpful to the federal space agency officials who are well aware that public support and enthusiasm is key to keeping their work a priority.

With the flyby of Ultima Thule, New Horizons will literally be living up to its name, giving us a new horizon to explore and be able to learn from, while giving NASA invaluable information as the agency gears up to resume manned spaceflight in the coming years. For now, the scientists and researchers involved are just thrilled to have made the find.

Meanwhile, they're thrilled that the probe has already sighted Ultima so much sooner than expected.

“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 New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “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."

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