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12 February 2018, 03:59 | Dale Webster
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At first glance the images are unremarkable.
NASA'sNew Horizons spacecraft recently turned its telescopic camera toward a field of stars, snapped an image - and made history.
The images for "Pale Blue Dot" - part of a composite - were taken 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometres) away. NASA said the image, captured by New Horizons's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), was "for a time, the farthest image ever made from Earth".
New Horizons is the first NASA spacecraft to fly by Pluto and the fifth to speed beyond the outer planets. These pictures show two objects in the Kuiper Belt, the so-called twilight zone on the fringes of our solar system.
At a distance of 3.79 billion miles from Earth, New Horizons recorded a picture of a star cluster this past December.
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Compare that achievement to Voyager 1, which was 3.75 billion miles (6.06 billion kilometers) from Earth when it took the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of our home world on February 14, 1990.
New Horizon's principal investigator Alan Stern said in the statement that the unmanned, piano-sized probe, launched in 2006, "has been a mission of firsts - first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched". A large, white, heart-shaped feature on the equator is made of ice, though Pluto is so cold it's probably an ice of nitrogen or methane, rather than water. Thanks to him, the researchers were able to learn that on Pluto there is a cryovolcano, glaciers, mountain ranges and characteristics of the subsurface ocean, and also the first to see the moons Charon, Nix, Hydra and Cerberus in detail.
With its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, New Horizons has observed several Kuiper Belt objects and dwarf planets at unique phase angles, as well as centaurs at extremely high phase angles to search for forward-scattering rings or dust.
Mission scientists plan to use images of these objects, captured by LORRI, to determine their shapes, sizes, and surface properties. "The spacecraft also is making almost continuous measurements of the plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment along its path", it added. The spacecraft is slated to swing by another Kuiper Belt object (2014 MU69) on January 1st, 2019 and record more imagery in the process.
Following a December 9, 2017, course correction maneuver to refine New Horizons' journey to MU69, the spacecraft was put into hibernation on December 21.
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