After covering 3 billion miles in nine and a half years in space, the New Horizons spaceship flew by dwarf planet Pluto Tuesday at 14km per second and NASA released a low-res photo as a teaser ahead of much higher resolution photos that are expected to stream in starting Wednesday.
Prof. Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, said in April about the photos: "We’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes."
The high-resolution photos to come will yield detailed topographical maps, and could reveal mountains, ice caps and volcanoes. "Who knows what kind of bizarre things we'll find up close?" Stern said.
The image was taken by the New Horizon probe 16 hours before its closest approach, some 476,000 miles away. It shows the heart-shaped feature on the surface clearly in the southern hemisphere of the dwarf planet.
"[It] is approximately 1,000 better than we could do even with the biggest and baddest Hubble Space telescope at Earth," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, at a NASA briefing. Stern said Pluto is "a little larger than anticipated."
"We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the Solar System, an endeavour started under President Kennedy more than 50 years ago and continuing to today under President Obama," said Stern.
"It's really historic what the US has done, and the New Horizons team is really proud to have been able to run that anchor leg and make this accomplishment."
It marks the fact that every body in that system – from Mercury through to Pluto – will have been visited at least once by a space probe.
The mission team will not celebrate until New Horizons contacts Earth again, which should happen at 00:53 GMT Wednesday.