New Horizons, the first NASA spacecraft to fly by Pluto, is still making history as it cruises deeper into the distant edges of the Solar System. Late last year, the little probe used one of its cameras to take a picture of a galactic star cluster — officially snapping the most distant picture from Earth ever made.
The previous record holder for the farthest picture was NASA’s Voyager 1. The probe, which flew by Jupiter and Saturn before heading out to interstellar space, captured a distant picture of Earth on February 14th, 1990, when Voyager 1 was 3.75 billion miles away. Known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” it was the last picture Voyager 1 took before its cameras were turned off shortly afterward. Since Voyager 1 is passing between star systems, it’s not going to pass near enough to any objects to get a good photo again, so the mission team decided to save the probe’s power for data collection.
Voyager 1’s record remained unbroken for 27 years until December 5th, 2017, when New Horizons snapped its photo of the cluster at a distance of 3.79 billion miles from Earth. Then, the spacecraft broke its own record again two hours later, when it took photos of two objects in the Kuiper Belt, the large cloud of icy objects at the edge of the Solar System that New Horizons is currently traversing.
The probe is heading toward a small icy rock beyond Pluto called 2014 MU69 (though NASA is working on a better nickname for it). The spacecraft will fly close to the object on January 1st, 2019, snapping even more record-breaking images when it whizzes by. And those pictures may reveal a very strange kind of space rock. Thanks to observations from Earth, the New Horizons mission team believes that MU69 may not be just one object, but perhaps two objects located close together.
We’ll know for sure when New Horizons gets close, and thankfully its cameras will stay powered on for a while.