This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on April 9 and downlinked to Earth the following day. It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, which will be refined later by the New Horizons science team. Clearly visible are both Pluto and the Texas-sized Charon. The image was made from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)-roughly the distance from the Sun to Venus. At this distance, neither Pluto nor Charon is well resolved by the color imager, but their distinctly different appearances can be seen. As New Horizons approaches its flyby of Pluto on July 14, it will deliver color images that eventually show surface features as small as a few miles across.
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft nears Pluto
01:12 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The New Horizons spacecraft captures image of Pluto and its largest moon

It's set to reveal new details as it nears the remote area of the solar system

CNN  — 

After more than nine years of traveling through the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent back its first color image of Pluto.

The initial picture released on Tuesday shows a couple of orange-tinged blobs: Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

But the probe will soon be beaming back much sharper images and a wealth of other information about Pluto’s remote, unexplored corner of the solar system.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, the first probe sent to Pluto, is scheduled to arrive in July.

“This is pure exploration; we’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator.

Launched in 2006, New Horizons is nearing the crucial point in its epic voyage of more than 3 billion miles. The probe is due to make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14.

“In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto system is really like will expand exponentially, and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries,” said John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

Discovered in 1930, Pluto was once considered to be the smallest planet in the solar system. But scientists have since revised that view because of Pluto’s size and location, demoting it to the status of “dwarf planet”: a planet that’s too small to clear other objects out of its way.

Pluto is 1,400 miles wide, roughly half the width of the continental United States. At 3.6 billion miles out in the solar system, it’s about 40 times as far from the sun as Earth is.

By discovering more about Pluto and its moons, New Horizons will shed light on a little-known third zone of the solar system, beyond the rocky planets and the gas giants.

The area, known as the Kuiper Belt, contains “mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks,” according to NASA. It’s known for producing comets, such as Halley’s Comet, which orbits the sun about every 75 years.

New Horizons will use its array of cameras and other instruments to study Pluto’s surface and atmosphere, as well as its moons, which number at least five. It will also be on the lookout for rings and other satellites.

Stern said the spacecraft’s encounter was set to be “an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s.”