So this is what Pluto looks like. It took 9½ years for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to make a journey of 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) before it finally whizzed by the dwarf planet at 7:49 a.m. E.T. on July 14. What it sent back were the first closeup images of a planetary body on the outer reaches of our solar system–a triumph for a mission decades in the making.
Traveling at the speed of light, the probe’s transmissions needed 4.5 hr. to carry the images back home. When NASA scientists analyzed the wavelengths recorded by New Horizons’ instruments and translated that data into what the human eye would see, the people of Earth met a reddish Pluto, with a heart-shaped patch on its surface 1,000 miles (1,610 km) wide.
Far from a cosmic love letter, the heart is a possible sign of geological processes still taking place. It will take NASA 16 months to download all the data from the flyby, but New Horizons isn’t taking a break. It’s programmed to continue traveling until its power runs out in about 20 years. NASA scientists predict it will encounter a cosmic body even smaller than Pluto on the outskirts of the solar system in early 2019.
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This appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of TIME.
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