First images of Pluto from New Horizons probe

5 Feb 2015

An artist's conception of concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its three moons in summer 2015. Image via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It’s been a long time coming, but US space agency NASA’s New Horizons probe has returned its first photos of Pluto as the spacecraft made its approach from a distance of 203m km away.

After a journey of nearly 10 years, the probe is getting ever-closer to the dwarf-planet where it will then detail one of the least-known objects in our solar system, which was only this century ruled-out as a planet following a consultation from the world astronomy community.

The probe’s camera which has taken these images is known as the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and were taken between 25-27 January.

According to NASA, over the next few months, LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto, against a starry backdrop, in a bid to refine the team’s estimates of New Horizons’ distance to Pluto, before making its closest approach to it on 14 July.

The time at which the first images to return has proven to have also been a happy coincidence as it fell on the 109th birthday of the birth of Clyde Tombaugh who is credited as the discoverer of Pluto back in 1930.

“This is our birthday tribute to Prof Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honour of his discovery and life achievements – which truly became a harbinger of 21st century planetary astronomy,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

“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 this summer.”

LORRI images via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic