The New Horizons space probe took the first picture of Pluto during its approach

Image of Pluto and Charon magnified four times to make them more visible (Image NASA/JHU APL/SwRI)
Image of Pluto and Charon magnified four times to make them more visible (Image NASA/JHU APL/SwRI)

Yesterday, NASA released the first photographs of the dwarf planet Pluto and its main satellite Charon taken by the space probe New Horizons after its awakening. The spacecraft was still over 200 million kilometers (about 126 million miles) away from Pluto but February 4, 2015 was the 109th anniversary of the birth of Clyde Tombaugh, who in 1930 discovered the dwarf planet. A small portion of Tombaugh’s ashes were placed aboard New Horizons.

The distance of the New Horizons spacecraft from Pluto is still higher than that of the Earth from the Sun. For this reason, the photographs are far from spectacular and Charon is just a small spot near Pluto. The exposition was only a tenth of a second, too little to capture the very dim light of the smaller satellites.

The LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) instrument used to capture these first images between January 25 and 27, 2015 is capable of taking high-resolution photographs so in the coming months will offer us better and better pictures. Now they’re useful not only to verify that LORRI keeps on working perfectly but also to provide navigation information to mission control.

In its approach to Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft will have to make some maneuvers to slightly correct its course. At a speed of nearly 50,000 km/h (more than 30,000 mph) it’s rapidly approaching its target for the flyby that will happen in mid-July 2015. In those conditions, the maneuvers are to be planned carefully and in advance to reach the optimal approach trajectory. The first maneuver is scheduled for March 10.

The most interesting phase of the New Horizons space probe’s journey will begin in June. At that point it will be close enough to Pluto to be able to take pictures where you can begin to distinguish the surface features of the dwarf planet and Charon.

In July there will be the apotheosis of the New Horizons space probe’s primary mission. The photographs will be of such a quality to allow, together with other analysis instruments, a geological, topographic and atmospheric study of Pluto, Charon and the smaller moons. During that month so much data will arrive to revolutionize our knowledge of those celestial bodies so far away.

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