New Horizons returns first new images of Pluto

As it makes its way towards its historic encounter with the icy dwarf planet, the New Horizon's probe has started returning images.

Pluto and its moon Charon, magnified x4 to increase visibility. NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

The first images of Pluto have come back from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on the 109th birthday of the man who discovered the dwarf planet in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh.

At the time the photos were taken on January 25 and January 27, New Horizons was nearly 203 million kilometres from Pluto (over 126 million miles). Although was taken with the high-resolution telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, the distance means that the images are very low resolution -- Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, appear as pixellated blobs in a black expanse.

However, they represent a new incoming flow of steadily increasing information about Pluto. Over the next few months, the spacecraft will draw ever closer to the dwarf planet, reaching its closest point on July 14, 2015.

"My dad would be thrilled with New Horizons," Annette Tombaugh, daughter of Clyde Tombaugh. "To actually see the planet that he had discovered, and find out more about it -- to get to see the moons of Pluto -- he would have been astounded. I'm sure it would have meant so much to him if he were still alive today."

As the months progress, LORRI is expected to snap hundreds of pictures of Pluto. At first, these will be little more than blobs of light, like the first images -- however, they will still be useful for issuing course corrections as New Horizons approaches. By late spring, however, the images coming back from New Horizons will be able to be used to glean more information about Pluto itself.

Pluto and its moons Charon, Nix and Hydra, as captured by the Hubble telescope in 2005. NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team

"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 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."

New Horizons, which has already travelled over 3 billion miles since its launch on January 16, 2006, and is flying towards Pluto at a speed of about 31,000 mph, will not only be studying Pluto and its moons, but also the asteroid field in which it resides -- the Kuiper Belt, which is expected to take a decade. When its mission is over, it will simply continue flying out into deep space. If it is still operational, it may be able to provide information about the outer heliosphere by about 2038.

"This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honour of his discovery and life achievements," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

"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."