Washington: NASA`s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has spotted the planet`s Texas-sized, ice-covered moon Charon for the first time, using its highest-resolution telescopic camera.
This represents a major milestone on the spacecraft`s 9.5-year journey to conduct the initial reconnaissance of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt and, in a sense, begins the mission`s long-range study of the Pluto system.
The largest of Pluto`s five known moons, Charon orbits about 12,000 miles (more than 19,000 kilometers) away from Pluto itself. As seen from New Horizons, that`s only about 0.01 degree away.
"The image itself might not look very impressive to the untrained eye, but compared to the discovery images of Charon from Earth, these `discovery` images from New Horizons look great!" New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md said.
"We`re very excited to see Pluto and Charon as separate objects for the first time from New Horizons," he said.
The spacecraft was still 550 million miles from Pluto-farther than the distance from Earth to Jupiter-when its LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) snapped a total of six images: three on July 1 and three more on July 3.
LORRI`s excellent sensitivity and spatial resolution revealed Charon at exactly the predicted offset from Pluto, 35 years after the announcement of Charon`s discovery in 1978 by James Christy of the Naval Observatory.