Pluto and Charon, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft. ( NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Pluto and Charon, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft. ( NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizons Sends First Color Image of Pluto and Charon

After 3 billion miles and nearly 10 years on the road, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by dwarf planet Pluto in July. Until then, the spacecraft is zooming ever closer to the frosty world and its five known moons, covering nearly a million miles each day.

Set for July 14, the flyby promises to be an epic final chapter in the first reconnaissance of the classical solar system. So far, we’ve been to all the other planets and several of the enigmatic worlds strewn in the space between. But we haven’t yet visited the former ninth planet or any of its siblings on the fringe of the easily observable solar system. Pluto represents a new type of world, waiting to be explored.

“Nothing like this has been done in a quarter-century, and nothing like this is planned by any space agency, ever again,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator. “Watch us turn a point of light into a planet.”

On April 9, New Horizons captured this image of Pluto and Charon from a distance of 71 million miles. It’s the first color image taken by a spacecraft on Pluto’s doorstep. Though the dwarf planet and its Texas-size moon (which is so large the pair actually form a binary planet) still look like fuzzy blobs, seeing them through New Horizons’ colored eyes for the first time is exciting.

“You can see immediately a number of major differences: Pluto seems to be very bright. It seems to be redder. Charon [in the lower left] is now dimmer than Pluto,” says Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science. “These are already tantalizing glimpses of this system.”

Nobody’s really sure what Pluto has in store. But we don’t have too long to wait: New Horizons will start beaming back even better images of the dwarf planet before we know it. In May, the spacecraft will be close enough to return photos that are better than the current gold-standard for Pluto — a series of images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 and 2003. And when the spacecraft zips by the frozen world, it will be able to see features as small as the wharfs in New York’s Hudson River or the lakes in the city’s Central Park.

So get ready, Pluto. We’re coming for your closeup.