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NASA spacecraft spots enigmatic icy object from crazy far away

Far beyond Pluto, the intrepid New Horizons catches a look at its next target, Ultima Thule.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft visited Pluto in 2015 and gave us Earthlings a spectacular look at the dwarf planet. How do you top that? You head deep into the mysterious Kuiper Belt and chase down an even more distant space object. 

NASA revealed Tuesday that New Horizons has spotted its next target, 2014 MU69, now known by the catchier nickname Ultima Thule. 

The spacecraft's telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager caught sight of Ultima from over 100 million miles (160 million kilometers) away.

nh-ultima-thule-first-detection-v3

The crosshairs point out Ultima Thule in these two New Horizons images.

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The Kuiper Belt is a region of space beyond Neptune's orbit. It's full of small icy objects and comets. New Horizon's field of vision is packed with stars, which makes its ability to locate Ultima Thule all the more remarkable. 

NASA compiled 48 exposures taken on Aug. 16 into an image showing the Kuiper Belt object as one dot among many others. This information will help guide the mission team as it steers New Horizons toward its history-making rendezvous.

New Horizons is on track for a Jan. 1, 2019 close approach to Ultimate Thule. NASA says it will be "the farthest exploration of any planetary body in history." Ultima Thule is located a whopping 1 billion miles past Pluto. 

The spacecraft should be able to answer a lot of the mysteries surrounding the object. Scientists say it could be peanut-shaped or may even be two objects orbiting each other. It's also quite small, likely measuring in at under 30 miles (45 kilometers) across.

"We now have Ultima in our sights from much farther out than once thought possible. We are on Ultima's doorstep, and an amazing exploration awaits," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.