The US space agency NASA’s legendary spacecraft New Horizons that has shattered nearly all the records when it comes to space journey of a probe, has once again made history when the iconic spacecraft turned its telescopic camera and shot an incredible image of the field of stars.
The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) installed aboard the New Horizons spacecraft captured a stunning photo of “Wishing Well” galactic open star cluster from a distance of 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers, or 40.9 astronomical units) from Earth on December 5 of last year. This is the longest distance from Earth when a spacecraft has captured and beamed back an image successfully.
Previously, the record was held by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft when it shot the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth. That picture was part of a composite of 60 images looking back at the solar system, on Feb. 14, 1990, when Voyager was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers, or about 40.5 astronomical units [AU]) from Earth. Voyager 1’s cameras were turned off shortly after that portrait, leaving its distance record unchallenged for more than 27 years.
What’s striking is that the new record stood for just two hours as LORRI improvised its own record by snapping new photos of objects revolving in Kuiper Belt — 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85.
New Horizons is just the fifth spacecraft to speed beyond the outer planets, so many of its activities set distance records. On Dec. 9 it carried out the most-distant course-correction maneuver ever, as the mission team guided the spacecraft toward a close encounter with a KBO named 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. That New Year’s flight past MU69 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history, happening one billion miles beyond the Pluto system – which New Horizons famously explored in July 2015.
“Besides being the farthest investigation in the history of humankind, this flyby is also going to the most fundamental and pristine object ever investigated,” said Prof Alan Stern, the principal investigator on New Horizons.
We have never been to anything like this. Of course, we’ve had lots of missions to comets that come from the Kuiper Belt, but they have come down into the inner Solar System where they’re prepared, sometimes through hundreds of passages by the Sun, and they are much smaller. “If you recognize Rosetta’s comet, 67P, which you saw so many pictures of from that great ESA/Nasa mission, this is a much larger target. It could fit about a thousand Rosetta comets inside itself.”
During its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, which began in 2017, New Horizons is aiming to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs,” former KBOs in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets. Mission scientists study the images to determine the objects’ shapes and surface properties, and to check for moons and rings. The spacecraft also is making nearly continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path.
Jim Green director of NASA planetary science division said that the Voyagers and Pioneers traveled through the Kuiper Belt at that time when they were not aware of the existence of that region. She continued that the New Horizon will know more about these objects. She said that Nasa invites everyone to enter in the next year with great excitement of finding the unknown.
Along with the hundreds or thousands of other small worlds, MU69 is also wrapped in mystery. The fact is all we know about it was from the information gained from Hubble Space Telescope. Other than this an observation campaign held last summer in which the team of New Horizons collected data about MU69 when it passed in front of three stars. These investigations showed that MU69 could possibly be two different objects may be accompanied by a star or a moon.
The New Horizons spacecraft is healthy and is currently in hibernation. Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, will bring the spacecraft out of its electronic slumber on June 4 and begin a series of system checkouts and other activities to prepare New Horizons for the MU69 encounter.