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NASA's New Horizons snaps its first color image of Pluto

Pluto and its biggest moon Charon appear as colorful blobs in a fresh NASA image taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Pluto in color
Pluto seen in color by New Horizons. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto is the underdog hero of our solar system. Once considered a full-on planet, it was downgraded to a dwarf planet, but it has remained an object of fascination for scientists and a space-loving public.

NASA researchers will soon be basking in a mass of new data about Pluto as the agency's New Horizons spacecraft arrives for an up-close visit. The craft is on track for a July 14 encounter with Pluto, but in the meantime it's busy capturing ever-clearer images of the dwarf planet.

A color image of Pluto and its largest moon Charon taken on April 9 "is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach," according to NASA. Though the new image is hardly a high-res wonderland, it's quite an improvement over images taken back in January from a distance of more than 126 million miles away.

The color image is from a distance of around 71 million miles. That may sound like a long way away, but it's fairly close considering Pluto is about 4.67 billion miles from Earth. New Horizons is making quick work of the journey since being launched in 2006. NASA describes it as "the fastest spacecraft ever launched."

To put the image in perspective, NASA reminds us that Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is about the size of Texas. Scientists are looking forward to better images showing surface features of the dwarf planet and its satellites.

"In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries," says John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.