NASA's New Horizons deep space probe to Pluto and beyond has sent back its first images since waking up in December. Taken by the unmanned spacecraft's Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on January 25 and 27, it took until Wednesday to download the image data due to the great distance and bandwidth limitations, and shows the dwarf planet and its moon Charon.
The images were taken from a distance of 126 million miles (203 million km) as New Horizons closes at a relative speed of 31,000 mph (50,000 km/h). However, the pictures sent back are more than holiday snaps. According to NASA, the probe's LORRI will collect hundreds of images for navigation purposes; using Pluto's position against the stars and its size to make more accurate estimates of New Horizons' position, so mission control can work out course corrections. The first of these is scheduled for March 10.
The US$650 million New Horizons mission was launched January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida and has traveled 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km). The 1,054 lb (478 kg) nuclear-powered probe is on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto and then on to study selected objects in the Kuiper Belt. Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, New Horizons passed the orbit of Neptune on August 24 last year and will rendezvous with Pluto on July 14 2015, which it will pass at a distance of 8,000 miiles (13,000 km).
The space agency says that the timing of the images coincides with the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930 – making it something of a very belated birthday present.
"This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements – which truly became a harbinger of 21st century planetary astronomy," says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute 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."