After more than 9 years traveling through the solar system NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is now on approach phase to its ultimate target: the dwarf planet Pluto and its family of icy moons, over 3.1 billion miles (5 billion km) away.
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The images above, acquired by New Horizons' LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) instrument, show Pluto and its largest moon Charon on Jan. 25 and 27. They are the first images of the two worlds to be captured during the approach phase of the mission.
"Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. "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 new LORRI images also demonstrate that the camera's performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago."
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The images were released on Feb. 4, 2015 - the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, the self-taught astronomer from Streator, Illinois who discovered Pluto in 1930 while working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.
"This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements - which truly became a harbinger of 21st century planetary astronomy," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "These images of Pluto, clearly brighter and closer than those New Horizons took last July from twice as far away, represent our first steps at turning the pinpoint of light Clyde saw in the telescopes at Lowell Observatory 85 years ago, into a planet before the eyes of the world this summer."
As a fitting memorial, a portion of Clyde Tombaugh's ashes are located within a small container affixed to the New Horizons spacecraft.
ANALYSIS: Pluto and Moon Charon May Share Same Atmosphere
New Horizons was more than 126 million miles (202 million km) away from Pluto when the images were acquired with the telescopic LORRI camera. The exposure time of 1/10 second was not enough to also capture Pluto's smaller moons Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos.
At 790 miles (1,270 km) wide, Charon is over half of Pluto's diameter, making it the largest satellite relative to its planet in our solar system. The two worlds are tidally locked, separated by only 12,200 miles (19,640 km) and orbit a common center of gravity outside of Pluto's diameter. For this reason astronomers often refer to Pluto and Charon as a double dwarf planet system.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons will perform its historic close pass of Pluto and Charon system this July, becoming the first spacecraft ever to visit these distant members of our solar system.
Follow the progress of the New Horizons mission here.
Source: New Horizons news release