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NASA Zooms In On Pluto, For Closest Views Yet

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An image of Pluto that was taken by New Horizons shortly before its flyby Tuesday shows a heart-shaped pattern on the planet's surface. NASA says Pluto "sent a love note back to Earth."

New images of Pluto have arrived from a NASA space probe, and they're already allowing scientists to update what we know about the dwarf planet — such as its size. NASA's New Horizons probe has traveled more than 3 billion miles to send photos and data about Pluto back to Earth.

NASA is set to release more images and data gleaned from New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto, which was achieved just before 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, when it was about 7,750 miles from the planet. At the time of the flyby, the craft was traveling at more than 30,000 mph.

New Horizons "is about the size of a baby grand piano," NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports for Morning Edition. He adds, "part of the reason it's so small is, they had to fling it away from Earth as fast as they could just to get it there within a decade."

That launch took place in January of 2006. Today, NASA says the time it took New Horizons to get to the destination was "about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched." The agency added, "The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space — the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball."

We'll update this post with news from the space agency, which is still compiling data that were already sent back to Earth — and is awaiting new information from the flyby. It'll take months to receive all the data.

More new information is expected to be released Tuesday — particularly tonight, after NASA reconnects with the craft, which has been focused on gathering information about Pluto rather than communicating with Earth.

While NASA says the best photos and data are yet to come, the new pictures of Pluto have already far surpassed the fuzzy images we once had. For an overview of the Pluto mission, see our colleague Adam Cole's tribute to New Horizons.

"Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer's son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Grunsfeld called today's feat "a great leap" in getting a close look at Pluto "and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system."

In addition to a delay of more than 4 hours (due to the probe's distance from Earth), the rate at which new information about Pluto will trickle back to NASA would frustrate many Internet users.

Alice Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations manager, says the data rate is around 1,000 bits per second, with a maximum of around 4,000 bits. That's just a fraction of the traditional 56K speed of U.S. dial-up accounts.

But that slow data rate hasn't dampened excitement at NASA over the apparent success of the mission. Calling Pluto a complex and interesting world, Grunsfeld said this morning, "The best is yet to come."

A key revelation that's already come out about Pluto concerns its size — NASA says its diameter is 1,473 miles, or 2,370 kilometers, ending a debate that has raged since the planet's discovery in 1930.

"Pluto's newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher," NASA says. "Also, the lowest layer of Pluto's atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed."

More details about Pluto's unusual characteristics will no doubt add to a debate among scientists over how to categorize it because of its small size and other factors.

"Pluto also orbits at a funny angle compared to the other planets," as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has reported. "And there are a whole lot of other Pluto-like things cluttering up the outer reaches of the solar system."

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