Science

NASA spacecraft spots its next destination billions of kilometres from Earth

A NASA spacecraft that explored Pluto has spotted its next target on the outskirts of our solar system.

New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, now it's on its way to another icy world

The figure on the left is a composite image produced by adding 48 different exposures from the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken on Aug. 16, 2018. The predicted position of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule is indicated by the yellow crosshairs and box. At right is a magnified view of the region in the yellow box, after subtraction of a background star field "template" taken by LORRI in September 2017 before it could detect the object itself. Ultima is clearly detected in this star-subtracted image and is very close to where scientists predicted, indicating to the team that New Horizons is being targeted in the right direction. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

A NASA spacecraft that explored Pluto has spotted its next target on the outskirts of our solar system.

This week NASA revealed pictures taken by New Horizons earlier this month of a tiny icy world known as Ultima Thule. New Horizons is aiming for a flyby on New Year's Day. It will be humanity's most distant exploration of a celestial body, 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth and 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto.

In 2015 New Horizons became the first spacecraft to visit Pluto. Ultima Thule is minuscule by comparison, an estimated 30 kilometres across. Scientists were surprised New Horizons could detect it from 155 million kilometres out.

"Our team worked hard to determine if Ultima was detected … at such a great distance, and the result is a clear yes," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima's doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits."

The pictures are the farthest ever taken, with more to come.

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