Nine years and three billion miles in the making, NASA spacecraft New Horizons returned a beautiful photo of Pluto today—by far the most detailed one ever taken. This morning at 7:49 AM ET, New Horizons sped past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour, while its suite of instruments gathered data about the dwarf planet. Pluto’s strange heart-shaped region is featured prominently:
Watch NASA scientists celebrate the flyby at its closest point, and the wave of elation across the room when the New Horizons team saw the high-resolution image for the first time:
A planetary astronomer for the New Horizons mission then tweeted this, marking that humankind has completed phase one of its mandate of space exploration.
New Horizons, which can take images of Pluto with 1,000 times the resolution of the best earthbound telescopes, went dark in order to accumulate as much data as possible during the flyby. Around 9 PM ET Tuesday (July 14), the spacecraft will link back up with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and begin transmitting more data. (It will take 16 months to download all the data fully.)
On Wednesday (July 15), NASA will be releasing more images of Pluto that are 10 times the resolution of the one above.
That’s assuming everything goes according to plan. After all, New Horizons is essentially flying into the unknown. It’s possible, but not likely, that New Horizons gets thwacked with a piece of flying space junk as it circles near Pluto.
In 2006, the same year Pluto was demoted from planet to “dwarf planet,” NASA launched New Horizons, an interplanetary space probe designed to reach the edge of our solar system and explore Pluto. NASA hopes that studying the ice ball will provide insight into how planets form.
New Horizons produces images of Pluto regularly. To experience the view from the unmanned spacecraft, NASA created Eyes on Pluto, an app that shows pictures of “where the spacecraft is looking and what its advanced instruments can see.”