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Aw, NASA probe spies Pluto's 'heart' as flyby begins

Pluto, the focus of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, has a softer side in the form of a distinctive heart-shaped feature on its surface.

Pluto's heart
A light heart can be seen on the lower right of this Pluto image. NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Pluto appears to be in love. The plucky dwarf planet was demoted from full-planet status in 2006, but that doesn't seem to have dampened its good mood. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on the space object and a new image highlights a sweet heart on Pluto's surface.

The 1,200-mile-across heart-shaped area of lighter color material stands in contrast to a series of evenly sized dark spots along the equator seen in earlier images. The heart picture was taken Tuesday from a distance of 5 million miles away. The probe is moving ever closer and will soon send back higher-quality images of these intriguing surface features.

"The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today," NASA's Jeff Moore said. "It will be incredible!"

Besides the light heart, a dark area known as "the whale" is visible at the lower left of the dwarf planet.

New Horizons launched in 2006 on a mission to study Pluto and has been sending back increasingly clearer images of its target. We've gone from amorphous blobs to pictures showing recognizable landscape features. The "heart" is a good example of this.

New Horizons gave space fans a brief scare earlier in the week when NASA announced some technical difficulties with the spacecraft. It was out of touch with mission control for over an hour and ended up switching over to a backup computer.

The probe recovered from the flaw and is on track to complete its mission as expected. "The flyby sequence of science observations is officially under way," NASA notes. The heart image is the first to be sent back to Earth since the technical anomaly happened.