Pluto has been through a lot. Since it was first discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, it’s been demoted to a dwarf plant and we’ve only been able to see a few pixels of it from the Hubble Telescope. Neither of the two Voyager spacecraft could rendezvous with Pluto, and a mission to explore its surface in detail wasn’t launched until 2006, a full 76 years after its discovery. In some sense Pluto is lonely.
That’s about to change. For the last nine years, the New Horizons spacecraft has slingshot itself around planets and plowed through three billion miles of empty space space at 31,000 miles per hour to meet Pluto. It will be July before New Horizons makes its closest pass by the icy, oddly-shaped rock, but on January 25th and 27th of this year the spacecraft started taking pictures to show it is almost there. From 126 million miles away, we still are getting just pixels, but it is data showing us what is to come.
The photos were released on February 4th — what would have been the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh. New Horizons carries some of his ashes:
The new images were taken with New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which will be used to take hundreds of images of Pluto and its moons over the coming months. As the spacecraft closes in on the dwarf planet, the resolution will increase, Pluto and its moon Charon will spread further apart (in this image’s orientation), and our loneliest Kuiper Belt Object will get its first visitor.
Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory put it beautifully in a press release. “Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light.”
IMAGES: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI