Nasa releases closest picture yet as probe approaches

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By the standards of modern astronomical photography it might seem initially underwhelming – a grey and white sphere sitting amid the blackness but make no mistake, this is a big moment for human scrutiny of the outer solar system.

To mark the moment when America’s New Horizons probe made its closest approach to Pluto, passing within 12,500km of the last unexplored world in the solar system, Nasa released a picture of the dwarf planet from slightly further away.
Showing sharp, close-up details of the surface, it is a huge contrast to the blurry white dots which, previously, were the only images seen of Pluto.

The image was released on Instagram and Twitter, a social media platform still six months away from its public launch when the New Horizons probe set off in January 2006.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University must now wait to see images from the closest pass to Pluto, with the spacecraft going out of contact during its journey. If all goes to plan, pictures taken during the pass will be stored on board and sent the 4.8bn km back to Earth later.

The craft is due to call home at 2am UK time on Wednesday morning. Only when that signal is received will Nasa officials know whether New Horizons survived the flyby. The images are expected to follow later on Wednesday.