Today NASA released a set of images captured by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on Dec. 5 of last year, when the piano-sized probe was 3.79 billion miles from Earth.
One of LORRI’s pictures shows the “Wishing Well” star cluster, a scattering of points of light that New Horizons could use for camera calibration purposes.
Two hours later, LORRI looked at two objects in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy objects that New Horizons has been traveling through in the wake of its Pluto encounter. The “Wishing Well” view and those two false-color images, showing the objects known as 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85, are what gave LORRI its record as the farthest-out camera.
“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched. And now we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history,” mission principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said today in a news release.
The record was previously held by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which snapped the image data for the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image on Feb. 14, 1990. That picture, the brainchild of the late physicist Carl Sagan, looked back at Earth from a distance of 3.75 billion miles.
Voyager’s cameras were turned off shortly afterward and are no longer being used, even though the probe continues to zoom through the solar system’s fringe at a distance of 13.2 billion miles.
New Horizons, in contrast, is just getting started. Or restarted. The probe is periodically in communication with the mission team as it closes in on its next target, a Kuiper Belt object (or perhaps even two paired objects) known as 2014 MU69. A Pluto-style flyby is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2019.
By that time, 2014 MU69 is almost certain to have a nickname, thanks in part to a naming contest that’s currently in the deliberation phase. For what it’s worth, the most popular choice was Mjölnir, which pays tribute to the hammer wielded by Thor, the Norse god (and Marvel movie star).
It remains to be seen whether Mjölnir passes muster with NASA and the International Astronomical Union. In the meantime, we’ll always have 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85.