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Nasa just released the clearest photo you've ever seen of Pluto

It has never been seen in such detail.

RIGHT NOW A a piano-sized spacecraft is barreling through space at more than 48,000 kph with an important destination: the dwarf planet Pluto and its system of five moons.

On Wednesday, the NASA spacecraft, called New Horizons, was 6.9 million kilometres away from Pluto when it used its LORRI (LOng-Range Reconnaissance Imager) camera to snap the first clear photo of Pluto ever taken.

Here it is, with Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, on the left:

pluto_charon_color_final Source: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

This latest image shows that we have come a long way since the days when the Hubble Space Telescope was taking images of Pluto that looked like this:

hs-1994-17-a-full_jpg Source: Dr. R. Albrecht, ESA/ESO Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility; NASA

Even with a powerful telescope like Hubble, Pluto is simply too small and far away to get a good, clear look at it from Earth.

That’s why, in 2006, NASA launched New Horizons on its nine-year, 4.6-billion-kilometre journey to Pluto.

Now the spacecraft has less than a few million miles left before its closest approach on Tuesday.

In this latest image, shown below in black and white, the spacecraft reveals two very different worlds: Pluto has distinctive contrasting dark and light colors on its surface, while Charon has a much smoother surface.

nh-pluto_charon_150709 Source: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

“These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different,” Alan Stern, the principal investigator of New Horizons, said in a NASA statement.

New Horizons’ seven instruments will study Pluto in more detail than any of the five moons, including Charon. B

ut simply from detailed images like this — and many more to come as New Horizons closes in on Pluto — scientists will still get a better understanding of Charon than they ever have before.

“If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what’s hidden beneath the surface,” New Horizons team member Jeff Moore said in the NASA statement.

A closer look at Pluto, left, and Charon together shows just how different these two worlds are on their surface:

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pluto3-1 Source: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

New Horizons is quickly closing in on Pluto, at speeds able to cover 1.6 million kilometres in just over 30 hours.

NASA has carefully calibrated the spacecraft to fly within 12,200 kilometres of Pluto on Tuesday. That’s one-six-hundredth the distance it was Wednesday, when it snapped that clear photo at the top of this post.

From 12,200 kilometres, the sophisticated instruments on the spacecraft will be able to resolve features on the surface of Pluto that are the size of Manhattan Island. Here’s an example of just how detailed that is:

nh-stern_8 Source: NASA/New Horizons

So stay tuned: Photos of Pluto unlike any you’ve ever seen are coming soon.

- Jessica Orwig

The final approach to Pluto: We live in very exciting times for space exploration >

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