NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reaches Pluto, transmits images

After nine-and-a-half years of waiting, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has finally made its closest approach to Pluto—about 7,750 miles above the surface—on July 14, making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.

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After first being launched in 2006 as part of the New Frontiers program, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has finally made its closest approach to Pluto—about 7,750 miles above the surface—on July 14, making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is an interplanetary space probe recently entered into the science phase of its mission, which involves a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons. Recent images captured by the spacecraft also show Pluto as it has never been seen before, including its distinct surface features and an immense dark band known as the “whale.” The image above, which was captured on July 13 when the spacecraft was about 476,000 miles from the surface, is the most detailed image that the spacecraft has captured of Pluto to date.

"Among the structures tentatively identified in this new image are what appear to be polygonal features; a complex band of terrain stretching east-northeast across the planet, approximately 1,000 miles long; and a complex region where bright terrains meet the dark terrains of the whale," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator. "After nine and a half years in flight, Pluto is well worth the wait."

John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, expressed delight over the accomplishment.

"New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple missions orbiting and exploring the surface of Mars in advance of human visits still to come; the remarkable Kepler mission to identify Earth-like planets around stars other than our own; and the DSCOVR satellite that soon will be beaming back images of the whole Earth in near real-time from a vantage point a million miles away," he said. "As New Horizons completes its flyby of Pluto and continues deeper into the Kuiper Belt, NASA's multifaceted journey of discovery continues."

The color image was combined with low-resolution color information from the spacecraft’s Ralph telescope with images captured by the spacecraft’s main imager, the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Ralph is a telescope with a 2.4 in. aperture that features a visible light CCD imager with broadband and color channels, and a near infrared imaging spectrometer.

Referred to as the “eagle eyes” of New Horizons, LORRI is a panchromatic high-magnification imager consisting of a telescope with an 8.2 in. aperture that focuses visible light onto a 1024 x 1024 monochromatic back-illuminated, thinned CCD imager from e2v (Model 47-20.) The CCD is chilled far below freezing by a passive radiator on the anti-solar face of the spacecraft.

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