Here's the view from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto

How big is Pluto? It’s the one on the left. Picture: Jcpag2012 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s taken nine years to travel nearly 5 billion kilometres, and we’re now just a couple of weeks away from getting the first proper look at our most controversial planet.

On July 14, NASA’s New Horizons probe will dip down to within 12,500km of Pluto’s surface.

The $US700m project began its journey in 2006. At the time, this was the best shot New Horizons could manage:

First Pluto sighting from New Horizons.gif
Image: NASA

It’s taken until this year for us to finally start seeing images of something that actually looks like a planet. In April, one shot came back that showed the first sign of features on Pluto’s surface, a bright area which could be a polar cap:

Picture: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

“It’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said when that shot was released.

According to Stern, it was already apparent Pluto had a “complex surface”.

Now the wait’s getting unbearable for New Horizon fans. This GIF released this morning is the ultimate tease, showing the dwarf planet so, so close to coming into focus, and being orbited by Charon, one of its five known moons:

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

It’s not bad, considering it was taken as the probe closed in from 56 million to 22 million kilometres away. You can even see a “dark pole” on Charon.

The team back on Earth is particularly interested in the dark band along its equator which comes into view in the later stages of the GIF.

But less than two weeks from now, New Horizons’ imaging equipment will be able to snap photos with the kind of resolution that could pick out “ponds in New York City’s Central Park”, mission team members said.

Alice. Picture: Credits: Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

There’s other important data to come as well. Soon after the July 14 flyby, when the Sun disappears behind Pluto, an instrument onboard New Horizons known as “Alice” will be in position to make a critical observation.

It will be able to see sunlight passing through Pluto’s atmosphere as though “Pluto were illuminated from behind by a trillion-watt light bulb”, as one spokesman put it.

Observing that will help NASA determine the composition of Pluto’s atmosphere.

You can follow the mission at the New Horizons homepage here.

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