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New Horizons Clearly Sees All The Extragalactic Lights


M87 with fainter galaxies in the background. NASA

New Horizons, the NASA spacecraft, presently in hibernation waiting to reach its next target, has helped us to know more about the beauty and complexity of Pluto, and for the time being,  it has already provided us with some unique cosmic data that we would not be able to obtain from Earth.

It is reported in Nature Communications that the spacecraft has taken a very precise measurement, with the cosmic optical background, the accumulation of extragalactic visible light created by every source in the universe.

As Michael Zemcov, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said, to determine how much light came from all the galaxies beyond our own Milky Way galaxy had been a greatly challenging task in observational astrophysics.

The main issue in research of the cosmic optical background from the inner Solar System is dust. During the course of billions of years, comets such as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko have filled the inner Solar System with very tiny dusty fragments that reflect sunlight, forming the so-called Zodiacal light (studied among others by Queen guitarist Dr Brian May).

The Zodiacal light is so intense close to our planet that it is not easy to take a good photo of the cosmic optical background. However, beyond the orbit of Pluto, that is 5 billion kilometers (3 billion miles) away, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is able to make observations of the combined light of distant galaxies in an undistributed way .

In Zemcov’s opinion, this result indicated that it was quite promising to be engaged in astronomical study from the outer solar system. What scientists were seeing was that the optical background was totally consistent with the light from galaxies and then it was not necessary to have a lot of extra brightness; but a lot of extra brightness was much needed when previous measurements were made from near the Earth. So the current research has proved that it is possible to do this sort of measurement from the outer solar system, and that LORRI is capable of doing it.

This is not the first time to do deep space probes for astrophysical research. Both Pioneer 10 and 11 were used to look at the cosmic optical background, that had laid the foundation for the current study.

While the targets of spacecraft missions towards the edge of the Solar System are planets, they could be optimized or tweaked to look at the wider universe in the long periods of travels between targets.


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