As Earth celebrated another rotation around the sun last night, millions of party-goers texted family and friends instantaneous New Year’s wishes. It wasn’t until 10:30am EST on Jan. 1 that NASA got its own festive greeting: a blurry picture from its most distant explorer, the New Horizons space probe.
Twelve years ago, New Horizons left our planet. It passed Jupiter in just over a year, and took another seven to reach Pluto, where it snapped the crispest pictures yet of the on-again-off-again planet. This morning, the probe successful navigated itself to and around the celestial object 2014 MU69, a mysterious hunk of reddish rock whose nickname—the “Ultimate Thule,” translates to “beyond the known world.” The object is more than 4 billion miles away from Earth.
Although the flyby occurred at 12:33am EST on Tuesday, the New Horizons is so far from Earth—more than 4 billion miles—that it took roughly 10 hours for the signal to make its way back. The spacecraft sent a picture of the rock taken from 500,000 miles out.
Detecting this frozen rock was no small feat. At 10-15 miles wide, it’s roughly the size of Washington DC, and was discovered during the New Horizons’ journey to the Kuiper Belt. Previously, our best glimpse of this tiny rock was a two-pixel-wide image.
Over the next 20 months, the probe will transmit gigabytes of research data and imagery—one to two kilobytes per second—over a faint radio signal back to its home world.