NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues to plummet towards Pluto and its small moons. The spacecraft is three months away from giving us the most detailed images and scientific observations of Pluto and its moons ever.

On April 9, New Horizons snapped the image below of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. NASA released the first color image yesterday.

Pluto and Charon New Horizons

NASA describes New Horizons as the fastest spacecraft ever launched. It has travelled farther and longer then any space mission ever to reach its target. It began its journey more than nine years ago and has logged three billion miles since.

“In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto system is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

New Horizons is closer to Pluto than Earth is to the Sun, but Pluto is just an orangish-white blob in the picture above. The image marks the first time a color image has ever been snapped, but it’s even more important.

The New Horizons team uses images like this to help better navigate the spacecraft towards Pluto.

“Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager.

“We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here,” Bowman added.

New Horizons work on Pluto will be quick. The spacecraft gets one shot at snapping pictures and making observations of Pluto and its moons. While New Horizons mission will be quick, it will send data back to Earth for many months after its flyby.

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The New Horizons team is prioritizing certain data to be sent right before and after the spacecraft flies by Pluto. But, New Horizons will keep sending data on Pluto for 16 months.

New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver calls the mission “one of the great explorations of our time.”

Pluto is a big mystery for scientists. We know the basics, but there’s so much more we don’t know.

“We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch,” Weaver said.

Pluto did you know

According to NASA, Pluto sports a nitrogen atmosphere, “complex seasons,” well defined surface markings and may even have an ocean under its surface.

Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, has scientists almost as excited as Pluto. It may also have an atmosphere and interior ocean. It might even have evidence of recent surface activity. “There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project scientist.

You can help name a feature on Pluto and Charon. NASA is extending a campaign to help scientists name features until April 24. Check out the naming guidelines and go cast your vote.

Image credits: NASA. Top image is Pluto as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope.

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