With less than six months to go until its closest encounter with Pluto, New Horizons is beginning to send back some photos of the dwarf planet. And yesterday, in honor of the birthday of the person who discovered it, NASA released the clearest photo yet taken by the probe, one that shows both Pluto and Charon taking up several pixels in an image of the New Horizons navigation camera.
Yesterday would have been Clyde Tombaugh’s 109th birthday. Tombaugh first saw Pluto in 1930 while working at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, before receiving any formal astronomical training. The Lowell Observatory is named after Percival Lowell, who predicted the presence of a planet beyond Neptune’s orbit. Tombaugh was asked to conduct an organized search for such an object, and he saw Pluto moving against a backdrop of stationary stars in images taken days apart.
New Horizons is now carrying some of Tombaugh’s ashes for an encounter with the dwarf planet, along with enough instruments to allow humanity to get a close look at a Kuiper Belt object. In recent years, we’ve discovered a number of these KBOs, resulting in a new appreciation that Pluto represents just one of a large class of objects (which in turn resulted in its demotion to dwarf planet).
The above image was taken with Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which is used to plan the spacecraft’s course through Pluto’s moon system. We currently know there are five satellites orbiting Pluto, and NASA engineers will do their best to make sure New Horizons doesn’t encounter them.