Nearly two months after it awoke from hibernation and set off on its historic journey to the edge of the solar system, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has already locked eyes on its next flyby target — a mysterious frozen world beyond Pluto that goes by the name of Ultima Thule.
Although New Horizons still has some 100 million miles to cover before it reaches its target in about four months' time, the space probe has already managed to detect Ultima Thule with the help of its telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), beaming back it's first-ever image of this enigmatic resident of the Kuiper Belt, NASA just announced.
Unveiled yesterday by the space agency, this exciting first photo of Ultima Thule was captured on August 16 from a staggering distance of 107 million miles (172 million kilometers). The image shows this fascinating object as a dim speck of light "against a dense background of stars," building up the anticipation for the big encounter on New Year's Day 2019, NASA officials said in a statement.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, not much is known about Ultima Thule except that it seems to be orbited by what looks like a small moon and that it might actually turn out to be a binary asteroid.
Nestled within the Kuiper Belt at a distance of 3.8 billion miles from our planet, Ultima Thule is the most distant celestial object ever studied by a man-made spacecraft — sitting about 1 billion miles farther from New Horizon's previous flyby target, the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon, Charon.
New Horizons is expected to catch up with Ultima Thule by the end of the year. On January 1, 2019, at 12:33 a.m. EST, the piano-sized spacecraft will perform it much-awaited flyby of this tantalizing object, coming as close as 2,100 miles from Ultima Thule to finally reveal its secrets. This will be "the first-ever close-up exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object" and the farthest a spacecraft has ever traveled, explained NASA.
"Ultima Thule in view! We've made our first detection of our next flyby target, more than 100 million miles out from our New Year's 2019 close-up encounter in the Kuiper Belt," the New Horizons team tweeted yesterday.According to NASA, LORRI's impressive performance has left the team "a little surprised" considering that the spacecraft was so far away from Ultima Thule when it picked up the object in the sky.
The myriad of stars cluttering the view made the observations even more difficult, noted New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, who is also LORRI principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
"The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects," Weaver pointed out.
Commenting on LORRI's extraordinary acuity, Weaver said that spotting the dim Ultima Thule amid a clutter of bright stars was "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."This amazing first photo of Ultima Thule, a composite image created from 48 different exposures, is also the most distant from the sun ever taken, notes the space agency. At the time the snapshot was captured, New Horizons was 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) from the sun — "breaking the record set by Voyager 1's 'Pale Blue Dot' image of Earth taken in 1990," NASA officials wrote in the news release.
"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!" said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.