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New Horizons Sends First Color Image of Pluto and Charon

After 3 billion miles and nearly 10 years on the road, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by dwarf planet Pluto in July. Until then, the spacecraft is zooming ever closer to the frosty world and its five known moons, covering nearly a million miles each day.

Set for July 14, the flyby promises to be an epic final chapter in the first reconnaissance of the classical solar system. So far, we’ve been to all the other planets and several of the enigmatic worlds strewn in the space between. But we haven’t yet visited the former ninth planet or any of its siblings on the fringe of the easily observable solar system. Pluto represents a new type of world, waiting to be explored.

“Nothing like this has been done in a quarter-century, and nothing like this is planned by any space agency, ever again,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator. “Watch us turn a point of light into a planet.”

On April 9, New Horizons captured this image of Pluto and Charon from a distance of 71 million miles. It’s the first color image taken by a spacecraft on Pluto’s doorstep. Though the dwarf planet and its Texas-size moon (which is so large the pair actually form a binary planet) still look like fuzzy blobs, seeing them through New Horizons’ colored eyes for the first time is exciting.

“You can see immediately a number of major differences: Pluto seems to be very bright. It seems to be redder. Charon [in the lower left] is now dimmer than Pluto,” says Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science. “These are already tantalizing glimpses of this system.”

Nobody’s really sure what Pluto has in store. But we don’t have too long to wait: New Horizons will start beaming back even better images of the dwarf planet before we know it. In May, the spacecraft will be close enough to return photos that are better than the current gold-standard for Pluto — a series of images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 and 2003. And when the spacecraft zips by the frozen world, it will be able to see features as small as the wharfs in New York’s Hudson River or the lakes in the city’s Central Park.

So get ready, Pluto. We’re coming for your closeup.

14 thoughts on “New Horizons Sends First Color Image of Pluto and Charon

  1. Oh if could but see all the precious gems of the cosmos, my life would then be complete.

    *but i suppose we have to settle for satelite images…atleast for now*

  2. Since I was a kid over fifty years ago, I often wondered what Pluto would be like. The past few decades has broadened my understanding of our enigmatic universe.

  3. Just curious… we’re traveling to Pluto and will be exploring it with technology that’s 10 years old. If we were to begin such a mission, today, would the spacecraft be able to get there sooner? If so, how much sooner? And how much better would we be able to see the surface and what additional tests would we be capable of performing? Finally, how would the costs compare?

  4. Fantastic NASA & APL. I was captivated by the Voyagers as a kid and teen in the 70’s & 80’s, but always lamented in by boyhood dreams, “Why not Pluto?

  5. Bill Clayton, I don’t think we’d be able to get there any sooner, since the majority of the probe’s velocity is accrued from gravitational slingshot maneuvers, and the physics that govern those won’t have changed. Any incremental improvements in rocket tech in the last decade would have minimal effect.

    But we certainly could put more advanced instruments on the probe that would take better pictures and make more precise and varied instruments.

    The need to harden electronics for space means that the instruments we could put in the probe today would still be 5-10 years less advanced than what you could buy for your cellphone, and stuff on the probe would have been 5-10 years behind what was available for use on earth at the time was built.

  6. I read some online articles stating that Pluto MIGHT be reconsidered a planet and if so does anyone know what criteria does Pluto need to fulfill in order to be reclassified by every astronomer if not by the vast majority of astronomers as a planet?

  7. It orbits our sun, it has it’s own satelite system, Charon et al. The navel preoccupied Astrophysicers will be outvoted by the rest of humanity…

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