NASA’s New Horizons camera-probe has sent back humanity's first closeup images of Pluto as the spacecraft heads toward the ice world at a blistering 31,000 miles an hour.
The photos, taken 126 million miles from the dwarf planet, show a dot along with its largest moon, Charon.
The aim of the mission is to better map Pluto and its moons using the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) telescope. The probe will also take dust, and energetic particle and solar wind measurements, to characterize the space around Pluto.
New Horizons' approach will culminate in a close flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14.
Over the next few months, LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto, against a starry backdrop, to refine the team’s estimates of New Horizons’ distance from Pluto.
Although the images of the Plutonian system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until late Spring, mission navigators will be able to use them to design "course-correcting" engine manoeuvres for a more precise approach.
The probe has already covered more than three billion miles since it launched on 19 January 2006. Its journey has taken it past each planet’s orbit, from Mars to Neptune.
“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
“LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as the New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets. The new LORRI images also demonstrate that the camera’s performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago," Weaver adds, with justifiable pride. ®