NASA's New Horizons Sends First Pictures of Pluto Back to Earth
New Horizons has sent back the first image of the elusive Pluto since NASA began its groundbreaking mission. Although the images are somewhat grainy, they're taken from closer range than almost any other picture of the former ninth planet, which has been notoriously difficult to photograph:
Pluto and its largest moon, Charon:
"Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light," New Horizons team member Hal Weaver said in a statement. "LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets."
The pictures were released on the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930 and passed away in 1997.
Gif composed of several New Horizons images:
The images are still too far away to be scientifically significant, but they are a preview of things to come. More detailed images are expected to arrive on Earth in May, which are expected to be closer-up and more informative than anything we have seen from Hubble.
New Horizons left Earth in 2006 in order to take basic observations about Pluto, a celestial body that the scientific community knows essentially nothing about. Pluto is so small and so far away (15,000 times farther than our moon), the most advanced telescopes weren't able to discern any details about the dwarf planet until very recently, certainly after New Horizons left on its mission. Years also pass very differently there, which adds a further wrinkle; 248 years pass on Earth for every one year that passes on Pluto, which has made it difficult to map its orbit around the Sun.
After nine years, New Horizons is finally approaching Pluto, and it will not only take more detailed images than we have ever seen before, but could help astronomers better understand the process of planet formation.