As it edges ever closer to its landmark flyby of Pluto in July, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has returned its first color image of the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon. This first blurry image marks the beginning of what will be an extensive and informative color photo series of the as-yet unexplored planet.
Since launching from Cape Canaveral in 2006, New Horizons has spent much of its 9.5 year journey in hibernation mode, preserving power for its awakening in December last year. Having now traveled more than 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km), it has since begun relaying data back to Earth. This started with black and white photos of Pluto and Charon in January, along with revealing images of smaller moons Nix and Hydra the month after.
The color photo was captured by New Horizon's Ralph color imager on April 9 and is the first ever colored photograph of Pluto taken by a spacecraft on approach. It was shot from around 71 million miles (115 km) away, significantly closer than its first black and white images taken at 126 million miles (203 million km), and transmitted back to Earth the following day.
NASA says that the blurry image is still to undergo refinement by its scientists, but the true detail will come as the unmanned spacecraft closes in on Pluto to pass at a distance of 7,750 miles (12,500 km) on July 14. Here, the probe will capture up-close, colored images of Pluto and Charon, hopefully revealing features on the surface measuring just several miles across.
Equipped with cameras, spectrometers, plasma and dust detectors and other scientific instruments, New Horizons will inspect Pluto's atmosphere and explore the theory that Charon itself may feature an atmosphere and even an interior ocean. The mission is also hoped to unearth new information about Pluto's four smaller moons as well as search for rings and additional satellites. The probe will then continue on to study objects in the Kuiper Belt.
"Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground based and Earth orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal," says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate. "In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries."