“It’s fair to say that New Horizons is looking at a strange sky, unlike what we see from the Earth,” Alan Stern, principal investigator of the project, said in a NASA release Wednesday.
In April, the New Horizons team aimed the spacecraft’s cameras at two stars: Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359. Proxima Centauri is about 4.2 light years from the sun the closest star to our solar system, while Wolf 359 is about 7.9 light years away. At that time, the spacecraft was about 4.3 billion miles from Earth. Because of the great distance between the rude robot explorer and the home, it was able to conduct the very first interstellar “parallax” experiment.
Parallax is a term used to describe how objects appear to have moved from different angles. NASA provides a good example: Hold your finger in front of your face and close your eye. Then switch – open the other eye and close the open eye. Since the viewing angle has changed slightly, the background behind your finger has also changed slightly and it seems to be in a different position.
Scientists can use this observation pig to determine where stars are in space. If you take a picture of Proxima Centauri from Earth in December, you take another picture in June, you can use the angle to estimate how far away the stars are located.
But you can also reduce the huge waiting time and take pictures at the same time if you have a camera far enough away from the earth. That’s where New Horizons comes in. New Horizons took photos of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 on April 22 and 23. At the same time, telescopes on earth took their own pictures of the two stars. When you view the pictures side by side, you can see the stars in different positions. They haven’t moved – but our point of view has it.
“The New Horizons Experiment provides the largest baseline salmon baseline ever made … and is the first demonstration of an easily observable star parallax,” said Tod Lauer, a member of the New Horizons team that coordinated the experiment.
Queen’s guitarist Brian May, a renowned astrophysicist and imaging buff who helped create the images, was equally chuffed.
“The latest New Horizons stereoscopic experiment breaks all records. These photographs of Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 – stars that are well-known to amateur astronomers and both science fiction viewers – use the largest distance between views ever achieved in 180 years of stereoscopy!” said.