Nine years and three billion miles in the making, NASA spacecraft New Horizons returned a beautiful photo of Pluto today—by far the most detailed one ever taken. This morning at 7:49 AM ET, New Horizons sped past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour, while its suite of instruments gathered data about the dwarf planet. Pluto’s strange heart-shaped region is featured prominently:
Gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach, which was at 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday - about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Images from closest approach are expected to be released on Wednesday, July 15. Image Credit: NASA #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons#solarsystem #nasabeyond #science
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Watch the wave of elation across the room when the New Horizons team saw the photo for the first time (at 8:17 in this video from the NASA TV press conference on July 14):
A planetary astronomer for the New Horizons mission then tweeted this, marking that humankind has completed phase one of its mandate of space exploration.
New Horizons, which can take images of Pluto with 1,000 times the resolution of the best earthbound telescopes, went dark in order to accumulate as much data as possible during the flyby. Around 9 PM ET Tuesday (July 14), the spacecraft will link back up with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and begin transmitting more data. (It will take 16 months to download all the data fully.)
On Wednesday (July 15), NASA will be releasing more images of Pluto that are 10 times the resolution of the one above.
That’s assuming everything goes according to plan. After all, New Horizons is essentially flying into the unknown. It’s possible, but not likely, that New Horizons gets thwacked with a piece of flying space junk as it circles near Pluto.
In 2006, the same year Pluto was demoted from planet to “dwarf planet,” NASA launched New Horizons, an interplanetary space probe designed to reach the edge of our solar system and explore Pluto. NASA hopes that studying the ice ball will provide insight into how planets form.
New Horizons produces images of Pluto regularly. To experience the view from the unmanned spacecraft, NASA created Eyes on Pluto, an app that shows pictures of “where the spacecraft is looking and what its advanced instruments can see.”