In July, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest pass of Pluto, giving us a look at a whole new class of planet in a little-known region of our solar system. It still has millions and millions of miles left to go, but on Tuesday, NASA released a new image taken by the vessel: For the first time ever, an approaching spacecraft has captured Pluto (and its largest moon) in living color.


Pluto and Cheron, from 71 million miles away. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

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

Yes, the image is blurry. And tiny. And generally unimpressive, if you don't know what you're looking at. But soon we'll see much more. At a news conference Tuesday, NASA scientists explained that at New Horizons' current resolution, the Earth would be so blurry that continents couldn't be distinguished. But by the time the spacecraft is at its closest approach, the pictures taken will have resolution so high that comparable pictures of Earth would reveal a birds-eye view of New York City, with features like Central Park and the Hudson River fully visible. The images we'll see of Pluto and its moons will be truly unprecedented.

"This is pure exploration; we're going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!" Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, said in a statement. "New Horizons is flying to Pluto — the biggest, brightest and most complex of the dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s."

At Tuesday's news conference, Stern pointed out that about half the U.S. population is young enough to have never seen the encounter of an unexplored planet for the first time until now. I sure haven't, so I'm pretty jazzed about that.

[Spacecraft Dawn has arrived at Ceres, one of solar system’s last unexplored planets]

Starting in July, New Horizons will furiously collect data using its seven on-board instruments. It's going to collect so much that it will take some 16 months for it to all get sent back home, extending long past the spacecraft's actual flyby.

This is definitely exciting stuff, and 2015 is shaping up to be a great year for space exploration.

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