The first color image of Pluto and its moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on April 9. The image is a preliminary reconstruction which will later be refined by the New Horizon science team.
In the photo are two blurry objects, the larger being Pluto; the smaller of the two is Pluto’s moon, Charon, a Texas-sized object to the lower left. The image was taken from a distance of about 71 million miles–roughly the distance from the Sun to Venus. At this distance, neither Pluto nor Charon is well resolved by the color imager, but their distinctly different appearances can be seen.
New Horizon will fly by Pluto–a distance of over 3 billion miles from Earth–on July 14th and will be able to snap photos to reveal surface features as small as a few miles across.
How long does it take for the image to get from New Horizon to Earth? It takes radio signals almost five hours to bridge the gap and it will take a total of 16 months for scientists to sift through New Horizons’ cache of images and scientific data.
“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. “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.”