One NASA probe made history on Tuesday as it reached the smallest and furthest planet in our solar system. (I'm a child of the '90s, which means Pluto will always be one of our OG nine planets. Dwarf or not.) The first high-definition photos of the distant planet have come out, and they are stunning. But if you look at these before-and-after images of Pluto, you'll realize why the New Horizons mission is such a big deal to today's generation.
For the first time in decades, the world is getting a fresh look at a planet in our solar system. In the 1960s, we sent spacecrafts to Venus and Mars to get close-ups of Earth's closest neighbors. The '70s gave us photos of Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn. Uranus' and Neptune's came in the 1980s. So with New Horizons' shots of Pluto, our solar system's family portrait is complete.
Sure, we've had photos of Pluto before, like the one given to us by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. But for more than 20 years, Pluto was just a fuzzy orange-haloed yellow orb that looked more like a star than an icy domain with frozen terrain. When you make a side-by-side comparison between the two images, like how Vox pointed out, you can see how far we've actually come.
Don't get me wrong, the Hubble telescope has the ability to take beautiful images of galaxies far, far away, but those systems are much larger than little ol' Pluto, which allows them to come out more vividly. Check out Hubble's photo of Pluto and its largest moon Charon in 1993.
And compare that with New Horizons' shot in 2015.
BuzzFeed's Luke Bailey also posted a then-and-now GIF that really captures the high quality of New Horizons' images.
The fervor of last century's Space Race may be long gone, but the New Horizons mission is just another part of today's resurgence of interest in what's happening beyond our skies. From Virgin Galactic to Elon Musk's SpaceX, commercial space travel is shaping up to become a reality sooner rather than later, and it's crucial we know exactly what's out there as we pioneer into outer space.
And New Horizons isn't done yet. The probe will explore Pluto and other nearby Kuiper belt objects for years, giving us more amazing photos of what's really happening out there in space.