NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has spotted Ultima Thule, the nickname given to its target in the Kuiper Belt, for the first time. The spacecraft isn’t scheduled to arrive until New Year’s 2019, but has snapped images of the object four months ahead of time, giving humanity a fuzzy, bright glimpse of the destination.
The dim Ultima Thule was detected by New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, also known as LORRI. The spacecraft is still more than 100 million miles away from the object, according to NASA, which says researchers were a bit surprised to get images when they did. The detection happened on August 16 and the related data was received by the space agency soon after.
NASA explains that this early detection plays an important role in helping researchers guide New Horizons over the next few months. Assuming everything goes according to plan, the spacecraft will make its closest approach to Ultima Thule just after midnight on January 1, 2019.
Talking about the Ultima detection is LORRI principal investigator Hal Weaver, who said:
The image field is extremely rich with background stars, which makes it difficult to detect faint objects. It really is like finding a needle in a haystack. 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.
Once New Horizons makes that closest approach, it’ll officially be the farthest exploration of any planetary body ever, says NASA. The spacecraft holds the current “farthest” record, which it set in 2015 with its Pluto flyby. As well, the Ultima Thule flyby will be the first time humanity has achieved an up-close exploration of a small object within the Kuiper Belt.