Making history: New Horizons reaches and flies past Pluto

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After hurtling through our solar system for a decade, NASA’s New Horizons probe made history by reaching and flying past dwarf planet Pluto earlier today. At its closest approach, the probe was about 7,750 miles above Pluto’s surface. This is the furthest planetary body ever to be explored by scientists.

An image from NASA provides a sense of scale as to just how far New Horizons has traveled.

An image from NASA provides a sense of scale as to just how far New Horizons has traveled.

What New Horizons has discovered about Pluto

In a NASA press release, assistant to the President for Science and Technology John Holdren praised the historic New Horizons approach and the wider space exploration endeavor as a whole by saying:

New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple missions orbiting and exploring the surface of Mars in advance of human visits still to come; the remarkable Kepler mission to identify Earth-like planets around stars other than our own; and the DSCOVR satellite that soon will be beaming back images of the whole Earth in near real-time from a vantage point a million miles away. As New Horizons completes its flyby of Pluto and continues deeper into the Kuiper Belt, NASA’s multifaceted journey of discovery continues.

Although New Horizons has yet to send back the highest-resolution images from Pluto (which we’ll post here as soon as they are released), NASA has released several tasty images for public consumption.

A July 11th portrait of Pluto and Charon from New Horizons' final approach (NASA)

A July 11th portrait of Pluto and Charon from New Horizons’ final approach (NASA)

One particular image making the rounds shows Pluto and its largest moon Charon in a false color composite that highlights their diversity (see featured image).

From a NASA press release:

These images show that Pluto and Charon are truly complex worlds.  There’s a whole lot going on here,” said New Horizons co-investigator Will Grundy, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.  “Our surface composition team is working as fast as we can to identify the substances in different regions on Pluto and unravel the processes that put them where they are.

Scientists are also beginning to get a sense of Pluto’s sheer size. According to another NASA press release, “recent measurements obtained by New Horizons indicate that Pluto has a diameter of 2370 km, 18.5% that of Earth’s, while Charon has a diameter of 1208 km, 9.5% that of Earth’s.”

This image from NASA gives one a sense of the scale of Pluto, Charon, and the Earth.

This image from NASA gives one a sense of the scale of Pluto, Charon, and the Earth.

And thanks to a slew of high res images, New Horizons is providing scientists with insight into Charon’s physical features. Scientists have spotted a system of chasms on Charon’s surface larger than the Grand Canyon, along with a large impact crater near Charon’s equator.

A close-up of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The impact crater can be seen at the bottom left. (NASA)

A close-up of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The impact crater can be seen at the bottom left. (NASA)

For now, here is the latest high resolution images of Pluto, which we’ll keep updating as new images are released:

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Posted on July 14th, 4:25 pm (Pacific time)

Latest image releases:

Youthful mountain range discovered near Pluto's equator.

Youthful mountain range discovered near Pluto’s equator.

Here's the sharpest image of Charon, one of Pluto's moons.

Here’s the sharpest image of Charon, one of Pluto’s moons.

About Author

Adam Cameron spent his academic career learning about Iran, but ultimately decided that a job in the military-security-industrial complex just wasn't for him. He worked with Iranian refugees for a few years and has always dreamed of being a writer. He lives in North Hollywood, California in an 8-bit cocoon made out of an elaborate blanket fort covered in Adventure Time posters.

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