CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - After a nine-year hurtle through the heavens, the tiny New Horizons spacecraft greeted a cold, dark and distant Pluto 70 seconds ahead of schedule Tuesday morning in a historic close encounter with the demoted dwarf and its moons.

The probe's arrival was reported by mission specialists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, who were linked to the Rose Center for Earth and Space in Manhattan as well as to science museums and planetariums in this country and abroad.

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"It's not everyday that we get to see something for the first time so this is a special day," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and one of three scientists explaining the probe's rendezvous with the dwarf planet Pluto.

At the moment of close encounter, the probe, about the size of a baby grand piano and swathed in gold-colored foil, swooped within 7,800 miles of Pluto, a distance considered breathtakingly close to the alien orb. The probe's journey marks the last great American flyby of the planets.

Pluto, demoted from full planetary status nine years ago, is smaller than our moon and cast along the farthest fringes of the solar system, a region that Denton Ebel, chair and curator of planetary sciences at the American Museum of Natural History referred to Tuesday as "the deep freeze."

A simulation of spacecraft's close encounter played out on a wide screen because it takes four hours for real-time data to reach Earth, 3.5 billion miles away.