- Until recently, the image captured farthest from Earth was the “pale blue dot” photo that the Voyager 1 spacecraft snapped before shutting off its cameras in 1990.
- Now, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has broken that record with several new photos.
- New Horizons is exploring the Kuiper Belt, a region of small icy worlds like Pluto.
When you look at Earth from far enough away, all of us – our drama, political squabbling, and day-to-day worries – appear to be part of a speck of dusk, a pale blue dot floating in a vast cosmos of space.
That’s the gift of perspective that NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft gave us when it sent its iconic “pale blue dot” photo. The image, snapped on February 14, 1990, was the last one Voyager shot on its way out of our solar system.
Until now, the photo was taken farther away from Earth than any image ever, a record that stood for more than 27 years.
But NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has now broken that record, sending back several photos from the Kuiper Belt, a region of the outer Solar System beyond Neptune. New Horizons is exploring this region and the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) found there in an effort to better understand these far-away worlds and the journeys they’re making through the cosmos. These objects include dwarf planets like Pluto in far-out orbits of the sun and former KBOs in unstable orbits known as “Centaurs”. NASA scientists are also using the New Horizons craft to analyze plasma, dust, and gas in the region.
New Horizons first broke Voyager’s photo-distance record on December 5, 2017, with an image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, which it shot as part of a routine calibration process when it was 3.79 billion miles from Earth. In astronomical units (AUs) – a measurement of the average distance from the center of the Earth to the center of the Sun – it was 40.9 AUs away. The pale blue dot image, by comparison, was captured 40 AUs from Earth.
Several hours after that first image, New Horizons broke its own record with the two images at the top of this story. Each of those show a Kuiper Belt object: The one on the left is known as 2012 HZ84, and on the right is 2012 HE85.
These new record-setting images are also the closest-ever images taken of KBOs.
New Horizons is now “hibernating” to save power in between actions on its journey. The next time scientists plan to bring it back online will be June 4, when the spacecraft will start preparing for a close encounter with a KBO named 2014 MU69 that’s expected to happen on Jan. 1, 2019. The spacecraft travels more than 700,000 miles of space 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,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said, according to NASA. “And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”