New Horizons is still about 100 million miles away from MU69 and the researchers didn't think they'd be able to see the small object with New Horizons' onboard cameras until around mid-September. "We thought it's worth giving it a shot a month early," Hal Weaver, the lead scientist working with the New Horizons' long distance camera, told the New York Times. Through a few dozen images, they were able to make out the very faint MU69, an object under 30-miles wide. Being able to see it will help scientists refine New Horizons' trajectory, though since the object was right where they expected it to be, it appears the spacecraft's path is already pretty spot on. "The whole team is jazzed now," said Weaver.
The spacecraft is expected to reach MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, on January 1st, 2019. It will mark the first close-up exploration of a small Kuiper Belt object and will be the most distant exploration of a planetary body to date. "It really is like finding a needle in a haystack," Weaver said in a statement about the images collected earlier this month. "In these first images, Ultima appears only as a bump on the side of a background star that's roughly 17 times brighter, but Ultima will be getting brighter -- and easier to see -- as the spacecraft gets closer."