NASA’s New Horizons satellite snaps farthest ever image from Earth

9 Feb 2018

Artist conception of New Horizons in space. Image: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons’ mission to Pluto may be over, but the NASA satellite has just sent back the 21st century’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’.

While some of the images we snap of the cosmos are stunning enough to look like artwork, sometimes the least interesting images are just as impressive for the effort they take.

This was the case with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which has just sent back what is now the farthest image ever taken from Earth at a distance of 6.12bn km.

Snapped on 5 December, the image was captured by the satellite’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and surpasses the famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 when it was at a point 6.06bn km from Earth.

Not long after that achievement in 1990, Voyager 1’s cameras were switched off, but it has since drifted endlessly into space for the past 27 years and will continue to do so for possibly millions of years.

Back then, iconic astronomer Carl Sagan had to convince NASA to turn the spacecraft’s cameras around to snap the iconic image of our own planet before it ended its mission.

New Horizons

These December 2017 false-colour images of Kuiper-Edgeworth Belt objects 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85 are, for now, the farthest from Earth ever captured by a spacecraft. They’re also the closest-ever images of Kuiper-Edgeworth Belt objects. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

What the future holds

Today, New Horizons’ mission is yet to finish as it travels at a speed of 1.1m km a day to reach its final objective: the observation of objects in the Kuiper-Edgeworth Belt, which got underway last year.

New Horizons is just the fifth spacecraft to speed beyond the outer planets and many of its activities set new distance records. It is set for the most distant course-correction manoeuvre ever on 9 December as the mission team will guide the spacecraft toward a close encounter with a Kuiper-Edgeworth Belt object named 2014 MU69 on 1 January 2019.

That New Year’s flight past MU69 will be the farthest planetary encounter in history, happening 1.6bn km beyond the Pluto system – which New Horizons famously explored in July 2015.

The mission also aims to observe at least two-dozen other objects in the region as well as dwarf planets and ‘centaurs’, former Kuiper-Edgeworth Belt objects in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic