New Horizons Gets Glimpse of ‘Alien Sky’ at Edge of Our Solar System

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For the first time in history, a spaceship has transmitted images of the sky from such great distances that the stars appear to be in different positions than we would see them from Earth.
These remarkable photos were taken by NASA's New Horizons, which are now more than 4 billion miles from our planet and are racing towards interstellar space.
"It's fair to say that New Horizons looks at an alien sky differently than we see it from Earth," said Alan Stern, New Horizons lead researcher from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a press release.
"And that allowed us to do something that had never been achieved before - to see the next stars visible in the sky from where we see them on Earth."
In April, the spaceship turned its long-range telescope camera to two nearby stars, Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359, and revealed how they appear in other places than we can see from our planet. Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light years from our sun and the star closest to our solar system, while Wolf 359 is about 7.9 light years away.
For decades, astronomers have been using this "parallax effect" - how a star seems to move against its background from different locations - to measure the distant distances to stars.
As the earth orbits the sun, the observable stars shift their position. However, since the nearest stars are hundreds of thousands of times more than the diameter of Earth's orbit, the parallax shifts are incredibly small, which means that they can only be measured accurately with special instruments.
"No human eye can see these shifts," said Stern.
However, when images from New Horizons are paired with images of the same stars taken by Earth-based telescopes on the same dates, the parallax shift is easily visible.
"The New Horizons experiment offers the largest parallax baseline ever performed - over 4 billion miles - and is the first demonstration of an easily observable star parallax," said Tod Lauer, a member of the New Horizons science team at the National Optical Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Labor said in a press release.
New Horizons, launched in 2006, is the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The spaceship explored Pluto and its moons in July 2015 and then flew past the Kuiper belt object Arrokoth in January 2019.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based science and technology editor who has contributed to Google, The Korea Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow him or contact him on LinkedIn.
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