A NASA image from Saturday shows Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. The spacecraft will come closest to Pluto on Tuesday after traveling 3 billion miles over nine years. Photo courtesy of NASA/UPI | License Photo
LAUREL, Md., July 14 (UPI) -- The New Horizons space probe came within 7,800 miles of Pluto, providing NASA scientists with the clearest photographs and most detailed measurements they've ever seen of the dwarf planet.
"It's been an incredible voyage... This is true exploration," John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, told reporters after the probe's scheduled flyby. "Pluto has turned out to be an extraordinarily complex and interesting world."
The new images that NASA will receive will have 10 times higher resolution than the latest imagery.
"I have to pinch myself. Look what we accomplished," New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman said. "It's truly amazing that humankind can explore these worlds."
The probe will fly by Pluto at a speed of about 31,000 mph, but it's not too fast to snap some detailed views before heading to explore another object located farther away in the Kuiper belt.
The New Horizons craft launched in 2006 and has so far traveled about 3 billion miles in outer space. As it has gotten closer to Pluto, its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager has transmitted back dozens of black-and-white images, providing progressively sharper photos.
As of Monday morning, New Horizons was within the planetary system of Pluto.
"Fasten your seat belts -- New Horizons has arrived at the Pluto System," Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, said at a briefing Monday.
NASA provided a live stream of scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., as the craft made its closest pass of Pluto
NASA won't know during this time, though, whether the flyby was successful. It won't start receiving information from the probe until about 8:53 p.m.
There's about a four-hour communication delay between Pluto and Earth because of distance alone, but there will be an additional wait because New Horizons' equipment will be pointed away from Earth in order to get the best readings and information from Pluto during the flyby. Once it has completed taking measurements and photographs, the probe will face Earth again in order to transmit information, the Washington Post reported.
Around 9 p.m. EDT, NASA received its first communication from New Horizons, confirming the probe successfully completed a flyby of Pluto. The official Twitter account of New Horizons said the probe "phoned home and is healthy."
High-resolution images of Charon are scheduled to be released at 7 a.m. Wednesday, and photos of Pluto are expected to be released by 3:25 p.m. Wednesday.