NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is currently on its way out of the Solar System, has broken the record for the most distant image taken from Earth – and then broke its own record two hours later.
On December 5, it took an image at a distance of 6.12 billion kilometers (3.79 billion miles) from Earth. This image showed the “Wishing Well” galactic open star cluster, and was snapped by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the spacecraft.
But just two hours later, it broke its own record when it took images of two objects in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the Solar System. Although NASA didn’t release the exact distance for these images, the spacecraft covers about 1.1 million kilometers (700,000 miles) every day.
“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts – first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement. “And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”
The record for most distant image from Earth used to belong to Voyager 1 and its famous Pale Blue Dot image. On February 14, 1990, the spacecraft snapped an image of Earth from a distance of 6.06 billion kilometers (3.75 billion miles), showing our planet “suspended in a sunbeam”.
New Horizons is currently on its way to an object in the outer Solar System called 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that’s believed to be a remnant of the early Solar System. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive on January 1, 2019, when it’ll be returning data and images of this object to Earth.
After that, there’s a small possibility that the spacecraft – most famous, of course, for that incredible Pluto flyby in July 2015 – could be sent to another object. That will depend on another suitable object to explore being found.
New Horizons already held dozens of records, but now it holds another. The spacecraft will be snapping images of a further two-dozen KBOs and dwarf planets as it makes its way out of the Solar System, so this latest one won’t stand for too long.
With no other similar mission out of the Solar System for the foreseeable future, though, New Horizons is set to keep hold of the record for a long time – perhaps longer than the 28 years Voyager 1 looked after it.