NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is just over four months away from passing within 2,175 miles of 2014 MU69, now nicknamed Ultima Thule. Earlier this month, the spacecraft trained its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on a part of space where Ultima Thule sat more than 100 million miles away. This first attempt at spotting the small chunk of ice and rock with New Horizons’ telescopic camera was a smashing success.
An exposure time of nearly 30 seconds was used for each of the 48 images captured on August 16. Countless stars filled each frame, but the New Horizons team was able to tease their faint target amidst all the bright stars. Ultima Thule was right where the team expected it to be.
“It really is like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Hal Weaver, the LORRI principal investigator. “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.”
New Horizons’ first look at Ultima not only makes for a cool picture, but it’s also going to help the team steer the spacecraft to a flyby that will take it much closer to Ultima then the spacecraft was to Pluto. During the Pluto flyby, New Horizons soared pasts at 7,750 miles from the surface. Ultima is much smaller than Pluto so a closer flyby makes sense. Still, it’s incredibly close to a chunk of ice one billion miles beyond Pluto.
New Horizons will break its own distance record for exploring a planetary body according to NASA. The spacecraft set the record during its 2015 flyby of Pluto. As we all ring in the 2019 New Year, New Horizons will add another billion miles or so to that 2015 record.
Principal Investigator Alan Stern is pumped for the next few months. “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!”
That “amazing exploration” should include some fantastic photos. It’ll be tough eclipsing the incredible images of Pluto, but we will be seeing another small world for the very first time. Does Ultima resemble Pluto? Or does it look completely different? It’s been a while since New Horizons stunned us, and I can’t wait to see what surprises Ultima has in store for us.