"The last of the known worlds to be explored": A remarkable first peek at NASA’s historic Pluto images

It's a big day for space exploration and social media today, as NASA hands its exclusives off to Instagram

By Colin Gorenstein
Published July 14, 2015 3:28PM (EDT)
 Pluto       (Instagram: NASA)
Pluto (Instagram: NASA)

At around 7:49 a.m. ET Tuesday morning, Pluto was paid a quick visit by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Moments later, the first image of its surface — captured from 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) away — was uploaded to the space agency's incredibly popular Instagram account. The account boasts over 3.5 million followers and will, in all likelihood, well exceed that by the end of today.

SNEAK PEEK of gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach - 7:49 a.m. EDT today. This same image will be released and discussed at 8 a.m. EDT today. Watch our briefing live on NASA Television at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv The high res pic will be posted on the web at: http://www.nasa.gov. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Image Credit: NASA #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons #solarsystem #nasabeyond #science

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on

“We made an editorial decision to give the world a sneak peek of the image on Instagram,” NASA's social media manager John Yembrick told WIRED. “We feel it’s important to engage new audiences.”

The image was posted to the picture-sharing network a whole hour before NASA agreed it would be officially releasing it to NASA.gov. You can now find the image there, accompanied by much more information about the 3-billion mile journey that led them to the dwarf planet.

NASA's encounter with Pluto marks the end of an era. As New York Times' Dennis Overbye notes, we have now successfully "cleared the last of the big hills."

"After a journey of nine and a half years and three billion miles, the New Horizons spacecraft is to go past Pluto, once the ninth and outermost planet, the last of the known worlds to be explored. This is the beginning of the end of a phase of human exploration. The crawling-out-of-our-cradle-and-looking-around part is over."

Arguably, this is also a big moment for social media; NASA's spokesperson said this is the first time the space agency has handed off an exclusive to a social media company.

Below, several images of the New Horizons journey courtesy of NASA's Instagram:

They're a fascinating pair: Two icy worlds, spinning around their common center of gravity like a pair of figure skaters clasping hands. Scientists believe they were shaped by a cosmic collision billions of years ago, and yet, in many ways, they seem more like strangers than siblings. A high-contrast array of bright and dark features covers Pluto's surface, while on Charon, only a dark polar region interrupts a generally more uniform light gray terrain. The reddish materials that color Pluto are absent on Charon. Pluto has a significant atmosphere; Charon does not. On Pluto, exotic ices like frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide have been found, while Charon's surface is made of frozen water and ammonia compounds. The interior of Pluto is mostly rock, while Charon contains equal measures of rock and water ice. On Tuesday, our New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to Pluto. Standby for more never-before seen images of Pluto! Image Credit: NASA #nasa #space #newhorizons #pluto #plutoflyby #charon #nasabeyond #science

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on

Colin Gorenstein

Colin Gorenstein is Salon's assistant editor of internet and viral content. Follow @colingorenstein or email cgorenstein@salon.com.

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