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​Passage: The solar system's underdog shines

The New Horizons spacecraft is giving us spectacular close-up views of Pluto, three billion miles away from Earth.
The New Horizons spacecraft is giving us spec... 02:18

It happened this past week ... our first good look at Pluto.

It was exactly nine-and-a-half years ago today that NASA's New Horizons spacecraft lifted off on its three-billion-mile journey.


Since its chance discovery in 1930, Pluto has always been just a blur in the telescope ... until New Horizons started sending back its close-up pictures.

For the first time we're seeing vast empty plains, which appear to be "only" 100 million years old at the most.

We're seeing mountain ranges some 10,000 feet high.

pluto-mountains-620.jpg
An image taken before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 47,800 miles from the surface. NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

And smack in the middle of Pluto's Southern hemisphere, we see a huge area shaped like a heart.

Astronomers are already attaching names to some of these newly-found features, including the heart, which they're calling the Tombaugh Regio (Latin for region), after Clyde Tombaugh, the amateur astronomer who first spotted Pluto all those years ago.

What none of the astronomers are calling Pluto, however, is a PLANET. It was officially, and controversially, downgraded to "dwarf planet" status in 2006.

And in an online appearance with incoming "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert this past week, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson defended that demotion:

Tyson: "It's not even on my tie, OK? I've got Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. That's it!"

Colbert: "That's the standard. If it's not on a casual accessory owned by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it's not worth knowing. Forget it!"

Still, Neil deGrasse Tyson IS calling Pluto "The King of the Kuiper Belt," a band of strange icy objects at the solar system's far reaches.

And it is deeper into that belt that the New Horizons spacecraft is headed next ...

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