NASA’s probe beams back new Pluto images

Washington: As the historic July 14 Pluto fly-by closes in, NASA’s Horizons spacecraft has returned new images of Pluto.

Although still just a dot along with its largest moon Charon, the new Pluto images come on the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh who discovered the distant icy world in 1930.

“My dad would be thrilled with New Horizons,” said Clyde Tombaugh’s daughter Annette Tombaugh from Las Cruces, New Mexico in a NASA statement.

“To actually see the planet that he had discovered, and find out more about it — to get to see the moons of Pluto — he would have been astounded. I am sure it would have meant so much to him if he was still alive today,” Annette said.

The new images are the first acquired during the spacecraft’s approach to the Pluto system.

“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist.

The dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets.

The new images also demonstrate that the camera’s performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago.

“These images of Pluto 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,” Weaver said.

Over the next few months, the probe will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto, against a starry backdrop, to refine the team’s estimates of New Horizons’ distance to Pluto.

Closing in on Pluto at about 31,000 mile per hour, New Horizons already has covered more than three billion miles since it launched on January 19, 2006.

Its journey has taken it past each planet’s orbit, from Mars to Neptune, in record time.