NASA has published some photos taken by its New Horizons space probe’s LORRI instrument in December 2017. During the course of its journey that will lead to the object called 2014 MU69’s flyby, New Horizons took photos that beat the record that belonged to Voyager 1 for the farthest photo ever taken from Earth capturing images of the open stellar cluster called Wishing Well and two Kuiper Belt Objects called 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85.
On February 14, 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe looked back and took the first photo that included most of the solar system’s planets from a position past Neptune. The image was called “Pale Blue Dot” because of what the Earth looked like and also included Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus. At that time, Voyager 1 was about 6.06 billion kilometers (3.75 billion miles) from Earth.
In December 2017, the New Horizons space probe passed that distance from the Earth and is now quite far also from the dwarf planet Pluto, with which it had an extraordinary close encounter on July 14, 2015. After sending us wonderful images and many other interesting data about Pluto and its moons, New Horizons conducted some maneuvers that will take it on New Year’s Day 2019 to a new flyby, this time with one – but maybe there are two of them – of the Kuiper Belt Object called 2014 MU69.
In the meantime, however, New Horizons is doing other scientific works that will not take audiences and astronomers’ breath away but are still interesting from a scientific point of view. At that point, however, the photos taken by the instrument Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) have become the most distant from the Earth ever taken because the space probe starting taking them when it was about 6.12 billion kilometers (3.79 billion miles) from the Earth and every day it covers about 1.1 million kilometers (700,000 miles).
To be precise, on December 5, 2017 the New Horizons space probe took a picture of the NGC 3532 open star cluster, also known in various other ways including the nickname of Wishing Well Cluster. After only a couple of hours, the LORRI instrument was used to take pictures of two Kuiper Belt Objects called 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85.
At this point every new photo sent from so far away will constitute a record. In the course of 2018, the New Horizons space probe will continue its approach to its target, 2014 MU69, which in the meantime is waiting to receive an appropriate name. There were various proposals ranging from Trantor, inspired by the Isaac Asimov Foundation series, to Tiramisu because it’s a frozen dessert, to Ultima Thule because it’s the last frontier but Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, is the one that received the most votes in a public poll. Waiting for the next year’s new year’s day flyby, we await the official designation.