Whoosh! Did you see that? It may look a bit scrappy, but the tiny white projectile at the centre of the animation below — officially called 1994 JR1 — is a cosmic time capsule, brought to you by a piano-sized spacecraft over 5.3 billion kilometres away. You’re looking at the closest picture yet of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) by a factor of at least 15.
The animation consists of four frames captured by the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on November 2nd. Spaced an hour apart, the images show the 145km-wide KBO 1994 JR1 moving against a background of stars some 5.3 billion kilometres from the Sun. New Horizons captured the scene from a distance of only 280 million kilometres.
It’s a small taste of what’s to come if NASA approves an extended mission for New Horizons to explore the cosmic badlands beyond Pluto. The Kuiper Belt is a vast ring of icy rocks; primordial material that hasn’t changed much since the formation of the Solar System. By studying KBOs, astronomers can peer deep into past and learn what conditions were like when the very first planets were coalescing around our star.
After a series of engine burns last month, New Horizons is currently on course for a close flyby of 2014 MU69, another KBO, on 1 January, 2019.