NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has taken an exciting first picture of a distant Solar System object it will visit on New Year’s Day 2019.
Called Ultima Thule (or more scientifically, 2014 MU69), the object is located in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the Solar System, about 44 times further from the Sun than Earth. It’s thought to be about 30 kilometers (20 miles) across and has a red color, but otherwise we know very little about it.
After flying past Pluto in July 2015, New Horizons has been steadily making its way towards Ultima. With four months to go, it’s still 172 million kilometers (107 million miles) away, but the team was excited to find the object show up in an image snapped by one of the spacecraft’s cameras for the first time.
The image was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) onboard the spacecraft, surrounded by background stars. Described as “like finding a needle in a haystack” by project scientist Hal Weaver in a statement, Ultima will now become more and more visible over the coming months.
“In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that’s roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter – and easier to see – as the spacecraft gets closer,” he said.
Spotting Ultima is important because it means the team can refine the course of the spacecraft to ensure it makes a close flyby of 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) away. This will be close enough to study the object in detail and image its surface.
In September the team will look for any small moons orbiting the object that might hamper the flyby. From October onwards, the quality of images from New Horizons will surpass that of Hubble – which was originally used to find the object as a target for the spacecraft’s extended mission.
Such is the small size that it won’t be until after Christmas Day this year that we finally know the shape of Ultima, before the grand finale of the flyby just after midnight on New Year’s Day 2019.
This milestone image from New Horizons confirms that Ultima is in the spot we expected, meaning that the mission can continue as planned. This will be the farthest flyby ever attempted in the Solar System, 1.6 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) beyond Pluto and 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from the Sun. Now we’ve got just a few months to wait.
“We are on Ultima’s doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!" Alan Stern, Principal Investigator on the mission, said in the statement.