This gif shows New Horizon’s first two images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, taken January 25 and January 27, 2015. New Horizons is the first exploratory mission to Pluto and its moons. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
They don’t look like much, but the white fuzzy dots are the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. They are the first photos from the New Horizons probe, currently 126 million miles from Pluto.
The photos were published late Wednesday night as a belated birthday present to Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. Tombaugh, born Feb. 4, 1906, passed away in 1997.
“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 Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in a press release. “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.”
After nine years in space and 3 billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe is closing in on the planet. Traveling at a whopping 31,000 miles per hour, the probe will make its closest pass to Pluto and its moon Charon on July 14, 2015.
For 85 years, Pluto has been a mystery, Stern said. This mission will finally begin answering the most basic questions, he said. Not only will the probe take pictures, its instruments will help scientists understand Pluto’s geology and its atmosphere.
“We don’t know anything,” Stern told the PBS NewsHour in December. “We’re not just going to new planet but to a new type of planet.”
Hubble took the first images of the planet in the 1990s. Much like these photos, Pluto was a “blurry blob,” Stern said. But in May, New Horizons will start sending photos at better-than-Hubble resolution, he said.
“After that, it’s going to be a waterfall,” Stern said.