IMAGE:This is one of the first ever close-up images of dwarf planet Pluto, taken four billion miles away using image sensors from e2v by the New Horizons probe speeding along at 33,000 mph. (Image credit: NASA)
Images of Pluto, which show a beige-colored planet with a pale heart shape and dark shadows along one side, were taken during an hour-long fly-by Pluto on NASA's New Horizons mission using image sensors from e2v (Chelmsford, England). The spacecraft set off from earth on January 19, 2006 and traveled for nine and a half years to reach the planet.
Matt Perkins, president of Space Imaging at e2v, said, "Very little is known about Pluto. It is classed as an icy dwarf, with a significant part of its mass believed to be made up of ice. It is so far away that even images from Hubble, which also uses e2v image sensors, are very blurred.
The two sensors are LORRI (a long range reconnaissance imager), which is the same as the one used on Rosetta (currently studying comet 67P) and provides black and white pictures, and Ralph, which will scan the surface of the planet to build up a color image and also scan for methane.
But the planet is so far away, that even travelling at the speed of light, the images will take four and a half hours to reach scientists on Earth.
Pluto is the final planet in the solar system to have been visited by a probe launched from Earth, and the images bring scientists a step closer to understanding whether or not there could be life in other solar systems.
Paul Jerram, e2v's chief engineer or images sensors, told the Chronicle, "Until a few weeks ago, the pictures taken were of a fuzzy blob, taken from the space station Hubble, the space telescope that orbits earth. They were also taken using our image sensors, but it wasn't close enough to take detailed images. So until now, no one knew what Pluto looked like.”
Having passed Pluto during the hour-long fly-by, the New Horizons spacecraft will now continue through the Kuiper Belt, taking pictures of anything it may encounter in the unexplored region of the solar system. But it could take years for scientists to study all the data found, as it will take five years for the probe to get through the Kuiper Belt, and all the data will take a year to get back to Earth.