From more than 100 million miles away, New Horizon’s next target barely looks like anything at all.
The object, known as Ultima Thule, has only just now come into view for that NASA spacecraft’s sensitive cameras, allowing the probe — which brought us never-before-seen, close-up photos of Pluto in July 2015 — to take its first-ever images of the distant world.
The images show Ultima Thule surrounded by bright background stars dotting the cosmic landscape, all but blotting out the dim, cold, and small object 1 billion miles from Pluto.
They’re frankly not much to look at. But even so, these new images, first taken by New Horizons on August 16 and released to the public Wednesday, are filled with promise.
“It really is like finding a needle in a haystack,” New Horizons scientist Hal Weaver said in a statement. “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.”
The New Horizons team will use these photos, and eventually others, to guide the spacecraft toward a flyby of Ultima Thule. The spacecraft is expected to approach the world at 12:33 a.m. ET on January 1, 2019, bringing its surface into focus for the first time.
Scientists hope that by learning more about Ultima Thule, they will be able to piece together more concrete theories about how our solar system formed.
The objects in this world’s part of space are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of our cosmic neighborhood, so learning more about these raw materials of planetary formation could re-shape our view of how our solar system functions.
Ultima Thule will become the most distant object ever seen from close range when New Horizons flies by on New Year’s Day.
“We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said in the statement. “We are on Ultima’s doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits!”