CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The NASA spacecraft that gave us close-ups of Pluto has set a record for the farthest photos ever taken.
With its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), New Horizons has observed several Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) and dwarf planets at unique phase angles, as well as Centaurs at extremely high phase angles to search for forward-scattering rings or dust.
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LORRI broke its own record just two hours later with images of Kuiper Belt objects 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 - further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you're covering more than 700,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) of space each day. Not only is the image at the top of this article the farthest ever made from Earth, but is the closest we've ever seen of Kuiper Belt objects.
"New Horizons has always been a mission of firsts-first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched", Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.
Today NASA released a set of images captured by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on December 5 of previous year, when the piano-sized probe was 3.79 billion miles from Earth.
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The Kuiper Belt is like an enormous and distant icy rock belt at the edge of the observable Solar System, full of dwarf planets like Pluto, Haumea, and Eris (whose mass is even larger than Pluto's). Its New Horizons spacecraft has managed to take the farthest images from Earth. "On Dec. 9 it carried out the most-distant course-correction maneuver ever, as the mission team guided the spacecraft toward a close encounter with a KBO named 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019", says NASA. On July 14, 2015, New Horizons flew 12,500 km (7,800 mi) above the surface of Pluto, thus making it the first spacecraft to explore Pluto. That picture, the brainchild of the late physicist Carl Sagan, looked back at Earth from a distance of 3.75 billion miles.
NASA says the New Horizons spacecraft is "healthy" and is now in hibernation. NASA reports that the cameras on the Voyager 1 were turned off shortly after that image was made, which kept the record intact for almost 30 years. Specifically, New Horizons is targeting 2014 MU69, a mysterious object (or pair of two objects) which Alan Stern, mission principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), has called "provocative" and a "scientific bonanza".
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