Scientists have released the first up-close images ever of Pluto and its large moon Charon. And they say they're amazed. The long-awaited images were unveiled Wednesday in Maryland, home to mission operations for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.
A zoom-in of Pluto reveals an icy range about as high as the Rockies. To the scientists' great surprise, there are no impact craters. On Charon, deep troughs and canyons can be seen.
The images were collected as New Horizons swept within 7,700 miles of Pluto on Tuesday, becoming Pluto's first visitor in its 4.5 billion-year existence.
Scientists didn't know until Tuesday night — when the spacecraft phoned home — that the encounter was a success. New Horizons already is 1 million miles beyond the dwarf planet, and 3 billion miles from Earth. The image of Charon boasts a dark patch at its north pole, which has been informally called "Mordor" by NASA scientists.
Travelling more than 8 million kilometres at a speed of 30,800 miles per hour, the small spacecraft has taken nine years to reach Pluto. Such is the distance, communications from the craft take hours to travel back to Earth.
The fly-by is a major landmark for space exploration with Pluto the last of the nine planets of the Solar System to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth. Echoing the excitement of the scientists, US President Barack Obama tweeted his congratulations to the team and highlighted the event as an example of American innovation.