New Horizons has sent back the first images of Ultima Thule, its next target | Science News

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New Horizons has sent back the first images of Ultima Thule, its next target

Ultima Thule

IN SIGHT Ultima Thule is barely a blip in images (left) from the New Horizons spacecraft. The remote world stands out more when the stars have been removed (right); the dark blobs are artifacts from imperfect star subtraction. Yellow crosshairs mark Ultima’s position — right where it was predicted to be.

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New Horizons has its next destination in sight.

The spacecraft, which buzzed Pluto in 2015, captured its first images on August 16 of the remote icy world nicknamed Ultima Thule, confirming that New Horizons is on track for its January 1 flyby. With about 160 million kilometers to go — roughly the same distance as Earth is from the sun — the tiny world appears as no more than a faint speck in the probe’s camera.

The pictures also barely set a new record: At roughly 6 billion kilometers from Earth, they are the farthest images ever taken. For decades, that honor was held by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which in 1990 snapped pictures of Earth and many of our neighboring planets from nearly the same distance.

Officially dubbed 2014 MU69, Ultima Thule is part of the Kuiper Belt, a field of frozen detritus left over from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago. By sending New Horizons to take pictures and measure the chemical makeup of Ultima’s surface, researchers hope to unearth clues about the origin of our solar system.

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