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Over nine years after its launch, New Horizons’ first images of Pluto have arrived

Pluto and Charon, the largest of its five moons, as seen by New Horizons. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
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Hey there, Pluto!

New Horizons has spent nine years approaching Pluto, the only "planet" in our solar system (okay, okay it's a dwarf planet) that hasn't been visited by a spacecraft yet. It's going to be another 99 days or so (check the countdown) until New Horizons sends back pictures of Pluto that are better than any The Hubble has ever taken, and another 60 days after that until the spacecraft actually gets to Pluto.

But today we have the first goodies of what's sure to be an exciting space mission: In honor of the late astronomer (and Pluto discoverer) Clyde Tombaugh's birthday, NASA has released the first photos sent back by New Horizons, taken on Jan. 25 and Jan. 27 with the spacecraft's telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager.

Pluto and Charon (the largest of its five moons) are pictured. The dwarf planet and its largest moon are tidally locked: They face each other, spinning around a common axis like ice dancers holding hands.

New Horizons was still over 126 million miles away from Pluto when the first picture was taken. Traveling at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour, it was 1.5 million miles closer for the second shot. Still, the pictures are rather fuzzy. But they're a tantalizing glimpse of what's to come.

"Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light," Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., said in a statement. "LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and 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."

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything session on Wednesday, the mission team explained that Pluto will start looking like a planet -- as opposed to a bright, star-like blur -- a few weeks before the closest approach on July 14th.

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