January 19, 2006, marks the day when NASA launched the iconic New Horizons spacecraft towards the dwarf planet, Pluto. The spacecraft took almost a decade to reach near Pluto and it made a close flyby taking never before seen and phenomenal photos on the now dwarf planet located on the exterior of our solar system but that’s not all the New Horizons is for. In fact, it is one of the few spacecraft which has been able to glance at different objects on its path to Pluto and now, it is reaching towards a Kuiper belt object called Ultima Thule.
On August 16, New Horizons spacecraft used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to capture a photo of Ultima Thule located at about 107 million miles away from the spacecraft and sent it to the scientists on Earth. The Kuiper belt object which is officially known as 2014 MU69 or 486958 or say, Ultima Thule, as it was named by contestants during NASA’s naming contest. It is located at a distance of 44 AU from the Sun and to put things into context, one Astronomical Unit (AU) is equivalent to the distance between the Earth and the Sun, Pluto itself is about 33.63 AU far from the Earth.
According to Hal Weaver who is New Horizons project scientist, the image was taken with 40-odd exposure shoots and displays a rich image with background stars and noises along with the slightly visible bump in the photo which is actually Ultima Thule in the foreground of stars which are 17 times brighter than it. He added that the object will get closer by days and so it will get brighter and bigger to been seen easily.
New Horizons traveled a distance of 4 billion miles from the Earth and photographed a 19-mile-wide object in the Kuiper belt which makes it the most distant object ever that a man-made spacecraft has traveled. The image is fantastic because it captures Ultima Thule stating that the spacecraft is progressing on the right path and that scientists can tweak the trajectory a bit in order to encounter a close flyby that will allow the spacecraft to collect data and captures images and transmit it back to the Earth.
The spacecraft is estimated to reach Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019, on the New Year’s day and exactly 13 years and 18 days after it was originally launched to explore Pluto. As the spacecraft gets closer to the object, it will help discern if the object is actually a binary system as it is believed to be twin objects revolving close to one another either at a close distance or if they are connected to each other or not. We will have to wait till January 1, 2019, to know what’s exactly going around the smallest object in the Kuiper belt.
The farthest distance that a manmade object(s) has ever been are the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that were launched on September 5, 1977, and August 20, 1997, respectively and have traveled a distance of 143.01 and 117.87 AU from the Earth as on August 30.