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The first colour image of Pluto and Charon (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The first ever close-up image of Pluto and Charon have been released as part of the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet.

The colour picture was taken on 9 April from the New Horizons spacecraft using the Ralph colour imager. It is a preliminary reconstruction taken at a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometres).

While the resolution is poor, both the dwarf planet and its largest moon can be seen distinctly.

It has been released as the spacecraft travels ever closer to Pluto, with its closest approach during its flyby on 14 July. At this point, the images taken will be in "spectacular resolution", as New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told IBTimes UK earlier this month.

first photo pluto
New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto on 14 July (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

"If we flew over London we'd be able to spot individual buildings. To be specific, the best resolution will be about 70m per pixel, so when I say buildings I mean things like stadiums or large buildings in the down town – not individual houses."

New Horizons includes a suite of seven scientific instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors. They will be used to map the geology of Pluto and Charon and examine their surface compositions and temperatures, amongst other goals.

This is pure exploration; we're going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!" Stern said in a statement.

"New Horizons is flying to Pluto – the biggest, brightest and most complex of the dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s."