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Wait for It: New Horizons Probe Snaps Pictures of Pluto

The high-resolution camera on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has begun capturing images of Pluto in preparation for its flyby less than six months from now — but it will take a few more days to process the image data, the mission's principal investigator said.

"We got telemetry indicating the Sunday imaging went well and that the images have normal engineering parameters," Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who heads the mission team, told NBC News in an email late Monday. "The images themselves won’t be on the ground for a day or two. ... We’re off to the races!"

This race is a marathon rather than a sprint: The New Horizons probe was launched nine years ago, and it's now more than 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) from Earth. At that distance, it takes 4.5 hours for signals from the spacecraft to arrive. The piano-sized probe is still 125 million miles (200 million kilometers) from Pluto, and that means the dwarf planet will look like little more than a bright dot in this week's pictures from New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI. However, even that dot can serve to guide the spacecraft toward its close encounter with Pluto on July 14 — and the view will improve dramatically in the months ahead.

January 2006: Pluto Spacecraft Begins Long Journey 2:03

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— Alan Boyle