New Horizons snapped these two farthest-out shots, of Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85, on December 5, 2017.
After making the first ever fly-by of Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft is getting ready for an encore. New Horizons was about 3.79 billion miles (~6.12B km) from Earth when the photos were shot.
They might not look like much, sure―the above images are the closest ever taken of objects within the Kuiper Belt―but it's a landmark moment for space photography all the same. These December 2017 false-color images of KBOs 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85 are, for now, the farthest from Earth ever captured by a spacecraft. This it slightly farther than the "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth, which was snapped by the Voyager 1 mission when it was at a distance of 6.06 billion km (3.75 billion mi; 40.5 AU) from Earth.
"Those are the farthest out images ever taken", says Dr. Andy Cheng, with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.
In so doing, they also broke a record that had stood untouched since 1990, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft sent back a final glimpse of Earth before its cameras went dark.
Artist's impression of New Horizons encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt.
That record won't be broken by another probe anytime soon, since New Horizons is one of just a few spacecraft that have ever made the harrowing journey to the edges of our solar system.
"Mission scientists study the images to determine the objects' shapes and surface properties, and to check for moons and rings". Data is stored in a solid-state recorder (the only moving parts in these flash memory devices are the electrons) on New Horizons and is then transmitted via radio waves. "The spacecraft also is making almost continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path", it added.
"New Horizons just couldn't be better... we're bearing down on our flyby target", said lead scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. This event, which will happen on January 1st, 2019, will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.
Beginning in 2017, New Horizons' extended mission in the Kuiper Belt aims to complete the reconnaissance of the solar system. These objects include dwarf planets like Pluto in far-out orbits of the sun and former KBOs in unstable orbits known as "Centaurs".