It’s onward and outward for New Horizons

NASA scientists on Wednesday released the first pictures of Ultima Thule — sent back 4 billion miles by the New Horizons probe.

It’s also a glimpse 4.5 billion years back in time, to the origins of the solar system, because the distant planetesimal has almost certainly orbited unchanged in the frozen Kuiper Belt since it formed.

And doughty New Horizons isn’t done yet. Designed and launched in 2006 to investigate Pluto, it’s already gone 1 billion miles farther out. And it still has plenty of fuel left, while its nuclear battery could last another 20 years.

Which means that Alice and Ralph (its two photographic instruments) could keep sending images back home for at least three more presidencies.

The probe won’t start sending back most of its Ultima Thule info until next week, when the sun stops blocking its transmissions to Earth. It’ll take 20 months to send all 7 gigabytes of data — at which point New Horizons can start scanning space for its next destination.

Scientists hope to have New Horizons (now moving at 32,000 mph) fly by a second Kuiper Belt object before heading into interstellar space, the fifth manmade object (following two Pioneer craft and two Voyagers) to leave the Solar System.

If the craft holds up, and the support mission back on Earth gets funding for a “hyperextended mission,” New Horizons could be sampling the interstellar medium by the time today’s newborns are finishing high school.

As project scientist Hal Weaver told, “It just keeps getting better and better.”