NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has started sending back images of the distant Pluto. The latest pictures reveal bright and dark regions on the surface of the faraway dwarf planet. Though New Horizons is still about 100 million kilometers from Pluto, excitement about its close fly-by in mid-July has started picking up. Pluto’s surface features are becoming more evident as the probe inches closer to the dwarf planet.

NASA New Horizons Pluto

New Horizons will be closest to Pluto in July

The new images were captured by New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera in mid-April from a distance of 112 million kilometers. The raw, unprocessed images were further sharpened using a technique called image deconvolution. The image analysis revealed that Pluto may possess a polar ice cap.

John Grunsfeld, an associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said that the latest images show some “intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole.” Researchers believe the bright area at one pole could be a polar ice cap. New Horizons will pass 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface in July. The close fly-by may bring further surprises.

New Horizons shows Pluto’s ‘complex surface’

Also captured in the image is Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, which rotates in its 6.4-day long orbit. The 1/10th of a second of exposure time set for these images did not allow New Horizons to detect Pluto’s four fainter and much smaller moons. Pluto has remained a mystery since its discovery in 1930. So far, researchers have struggled to explain the details about its surface.

Pluto orbits the Sun about 3.2 billion miles from Earth. Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, said the new images show that Pluto has a “complex surface.” New Horizons has been traveling through space for more than nine years. We still have to wait for another three months until we can see the dwarf planet up close for the first time in human history.