NASA scientists say the agency's New Horizons spacecraft recently turned its telescopic camera toward a field of stars, snapped an image - and made history.
According to a release from NASA, the routine calibration frame of the "Wishing Well" galactic open star cluster, made by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on Dec. 5, was taken when New Horizons was 3.79 billion miles from Earth - making it, for a time, the farthest image ever made from Earth.
New Horizons is best known as the NASA probe to Pluto and the distant fringes of the solar system, with closest approach to, and flyby of, Pluto taking place in the summer of 2015.
Since the Pluto encounter, NASA has tasked the spacecraft with investigating other objects in the Kuiper Belt, a distant region of the solar system populated by asteroids, comets, and many bodies suspected of being composed largely of ice.
Scientists say when New Horizons took its calibrating image of the Wishing Well star cluster, it was even farther from home than NASA’s Voyager 1 when it captured the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth.
The Pale Blue Dot picture was part of a composite of 60 images looking back at the solar system, on Feb. 14, 1990, when Voyager was 3.75 billion miles from Earth.
Voyager 1’s cameras were turned off shortly after that portrait, leaving its distance record unchallenged for more than 27 years.
New Horizons, according to NASA, broke its own record just two hours later with images of two Kuiper Belt objects, further demonstrating how nothing stands still when you’re covering more than 700,000 miles of space each day.
New Horizons is just the fifth spacecraft to speed beyond the outer planets, joining the ranks of Pioneer spacecraft 10 and 11, and Voyager spacecraft 1 and 2.
During its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, which began in 2017, scientists say New Horizons is aiming to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and "Centaurs" ... former KBOs in unstable orbits that cross the orbits of the giant planets.
According to NASA, the spacecraft is healthy and is currently in hibernation.
Mission controllers say the plan is to bring the spacecraft out of its electronic slumber on June 4 and begin a series of system checkouts and other activities to prepare New Horizons for its next close encounter, which will be with the Kuiper Belt Object designated 2014 MU69.
Scientists say the flight past MU69 is scheduled to take place Jan.1, 2019.
They say the new Year's Day encounter will mark the farthest planetary encounter in history, happening one billion miles beyond the Pluto system.