3 billion miles, 4.5 hours of shutter lag: The closest and most incredible photos from Pluto

by Gannon Burgett

posted Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 5:03 PM EST

It may have taken 9.5 years, but NASA’s New Horizons mission has finally been completed, sending back high-resolution photos of Pluto, its surface and its moons for the first time ever.

Until now, the closest image we had of Pluto’s surface is the image below, captured in 2010 by the Hubble Space Telescope. This is due to the incredible distance the dwarf planet is, leaving even the most powerful telescopes hopeless to capture its surface.

It may have taken almost a decade to get New Horizons to Pluto, but once it was there, it only had an hour to capture as many photos as possible. Thus, to ensure it made use of every second, NASA captured hundreds of photos of Pluto’s surface and moons, which will be sent back over the the coming days, weeks – it takes 4.5 hours to send back a single image.

The image below, shared by NASA, shows just how dramatic a difference today’s photos are compared to those previously taken by other telescopes and spacecrafts.

Billions of miles can be hard to get your head around, so here's some fun facts, that'll bring things back down to Earthly size.

Pluto is currently about 3 billion miles from Earth; it's right around 3,000 air miles from Boston, MA to Dublin, Ireland. That's a nice, round factor of a million.

So, the New Horizons mission is like*:
- Flying from Boston to Dublin
- Arriving within 3 inches of where you'd intended to (the 60 x 90 km window they were aiming for)
-- Only adjusting your course 9 times along the way; the rest of the time, the controls were locked
- Looking at a building 40 feet away
- And picking out details 1/100 of an inch across

Vox has a wonderful article explaining the intricate details of the mission, so be sure to check that out if you’re a space geek. For this just wanting to see the photos, below are a number of images NASA has shared with the world thus far.

The New Horizons team celebrates as they see the New Horizons' sharpest image of Pluto before its closest approach
Photo progression of Pluto as New Horizons approached the dwarf planet over the past 9.5 years
A composite showing the size of Pluto's moon Charon next to the dwarf planet
Pixellated image of another moon of Pluto's, Hydra
Detailed look at the surface of Pluto's largest moon, Charon
A detailed look at the icy surface of Pluto captured by the New Horizons probe

* Check my math, I may have slipped a digit there somewhere...
- Pluto and Boston-Dublin distances are online as about 3 billion and 2,986 miles respectively
- NASA said they had to hit a 60 x 90 km "window" in space, at closest approach
- NASA's "icy mountains" shot was taken at a distance of 47,800 miles, and they said that it "easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across" (https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/the-icy-mountains-of-pluto)
- Closest approach will be 7,750 miles, about a factor of 6 closer, so resolved details should be about a factor of 6 smaller