World / Science & Health

New Horizons spacecraft takes farthest photos ever, from 6 billion km away

Probe that passed Pluto heads toward pristine two-lobed body in the Kuiper Belt next January


The NASA spacecraft that gave us close-ups of Pluto has set a record for the farthest photos ever taken.

In December — while 3.79 billion miles (6.12 billion kilometers) from Earth — the New Horizons spacecraft snapped a picture of a star cluster. The photo surpassed the “Pale Blue Dot” images of Earth taken in 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1.

The images for “Pale Blue Dot” — part of a composite — were taken from 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) away.

New Horizons took more photos as it sped deeper into the cosmos in December. These pictures show two objects in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called twilight zone on the fringes of our solar system. NASA released the images this past week.

New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015. It is heading toward an even closer encounter with an object 1½ billion km beyond Pluto on Jan. 1. The object is known as 2014 MU69; the spacecraft will pass within 2,175 miles (3,500 km). 2014 MU69 is only about 30 km (19 miles) in diameter, with two distinct lobes 20 and 18 km wide, meaning it likely is made of two primordial objects, untouched since the beginning of the solar system, that have gently joined together.

“New Horizons just couldn’t be better. … We’re bearing down on our flyby target,” said lead scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

New Horizons is currently in electronic hibernation. Flight controllers at a Johns Hopkins University lab in Laurel, Maryland, will awaken the spacecraft in June and start getting it ready for the flyby.

The spacecraft was launched in 2006.