NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent its first stunning images of Pluto as the probe closes in on the dwarf planet.
New Horizons was more than 203 million km away from Pluto when it began taking images, the US space agancy said in a statement.
Although still just a dot along with its largest moon, Charon, the 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, of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
"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 were still alive today," she added.
The new images, taken with New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), are the first acquired during the spacecraft’s 2015 approach to the Pluto system which culminates with a close flyby of Pluto and its moons July 14.
Over the next few months, LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto, against a starry backdrop, to refine the team’s estimates of New Horizons’ distance to Pluto.
As in these first images, the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until late spring.
"Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
"The dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets. The new LORRI images also demonstrate that the camera’s performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago," Weaver said.