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NASA's Pluto-bound probe sees its distant target

Posted: August 11, 2014

Heading toward a speedy encounter next summer, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has glimpsed Pluto and its moon Charon in a cosmic orbital dance from a distance of more than 260 million miles.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Recorded over five days in July, the images show Charon completing one orbit of Pluto. Charon orbits approximately 11,200 miles from Pluto.

Pluto's smaller moons -- Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos -- are too faint to see with the camera on New Horizons. Scientists say they will come into view as the probe nears Pluto next year.

The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, instrument on New Horizons took the pictures used in the short movie. Ground controllers commanded the spacecraft to take the images as part of the mission's first optical navigation campaign, which is used to ensure New Horizons flies at the correct distance from Pluto during a high-speed flyby on July 14, 2015.

The encounter of Pluto by New Horizons will give scientists their first close-up view of the distant world.

The probe's images of Pluto and its moons will become better than the best views possible with the Hubble Space Telescope early next year.

"The image sequence showing Charon revolving around Pluto set a record for close range imaging of Pluto -- they were taken from 10 times closer to the planet than the Earth is," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "But we'll smash that record again and again, starting in January, as approach operations begin."

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons will cross the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25, then enter the last in a series of deep space hibernations Aug. 29.

"We are really excited to see our target and its biggest satellite in motion from our own perch, less than a year from the historic encounter ahead!"

New Horizons will wake up in December before starting long range encounter operations Jan. 4.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.