NASA‘s New Horizons probe has been making its way toward Pluto for almost a decade, and now it’s on the final leg of its journey. While the probe’s closest flyby is scheduled to take place in July, it’s already sending back its first images of the planet-turned-dwarf-planet.
Pluto and its largest moon Charon appear as pale blurs in New Horizons’ snapshots, but the probe will be sending back clearer images over the next few months. When these first photos were taken, New Horizons was about 126 million miles away from Pluto. In that context, this camera work doesn’t look half bad.
New Horizons has traveled more than 3 billion miles since it launched in 2006, following a trajectory that was mostly pre-programmed by flight controllers at NASA. For much of the journey, the spacecraft was actually in a state of hibernation, awaking now and then for diagnostics, status updates to NASA, or major planetary flybys.
In December, New Horizons woke up for its most important task: the final approach to Pluto, which has been such a long time coming that, when the probe launched, it was heading for a planet. (An international organization of astronomers demoted Pluto a few months after the probe blasted off.)
NASA scientists are currently following New Horizons’ progress to make sure the probe can still reach its target on time. This is the real purpose of those pixelated photos of Pluto and Charon: double-checking the probe’s trajectory. Once New Horizons is closer to its destination, better-qality data will deliver valuable new information about the dwarf planet and its moons.
NASA’s social media team is keeping people up to date on the mission, with @NASANewHorizons providing the speediest news.
On Wednesday, several of the New Horizons scientists did a Reddit AMA where they answered a range of questions, including what the probe will do after it passes Pluto. (It will move on to smaller targets in the outer reaches of the Solar System.)
This week’s Pluto images were released to commemorate the birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the dwarf planet in 1930. They aren’t quite as clear as those taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in the past, but once New Horizons edges right up next to Pluto in five months’ time, it will be able to do a far better job.
Photo via NASA