These are the photos we've been waiting for.
As we've been reporting since Tuesday, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft spent July 14 flying by Pluto and its moon Charon to help document and map the two planetary bodies and complete our solar system's family portrait. Famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking even gave NASA and the New Horizons team props on their success.
Given what little we know about the different icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt, where Pluto lives, there was no guarantee New Horizons would make it through without some bumps and bruises — or, worse, a full-on collision.
Wednesday morning, as promised during a mission update from New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and mission operations manager Alice Bowman, new photos have arrived, revealing never-before-seen images of the distant, icy dwarf planet, its surface and its moons.
Here is Pluto's surface up close:
And our best view ever of Pluto's moon Charon:
There's a Mordor on Charon:
Here's a far-off image of Pluto's moon Hydra, which is primarily water-ice:
Through these images, the New Horizons team has discovered there are mountains in the Kuiper Belt, that the smoothness found on Charon may indicate it's been geologically active recently and there's a massive canyon, about four to six miles deep, cut into Charon's surface — an incredible amount of topography the team didn't expect to find.
Before turning the mission update floor over to comments from the audience, Dr. Alan Stern took a moment to commemorate Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. The "heart," as it's been informally called ever since that brilliantly lit image surfaced on the Internet, has been unofficially renamed Tombaugh Regio, giving the discoverer his own personal plot of real estate on his most famous finding.
When asked if his prediction from years ago was correct, Stern, with only barely veiled excitement, responded: "The pluto system is something wonderful."