NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft awakens for encounter with Pluto

Washington: NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, the first probe sent to Pluto, has come out of hibernation after a voyage of nearly nine years and three billion miles away from Earth, the US space agency announced on Saturday, December 6, 2014.

Operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, confirmed at 9:53 pm (EST) that New Horizons, operating on pre-programmed computer commands, had switched from hibernation to “active” mode.

Launched on January 16, 2006 from Cape Canaveral, the small space probe has awoken as it closes in on the dwarf planet, gearing up for its long-awaited 2015 encounter with the Pluto and its home, the Kuiper Belt.

“Moving at light speed, the radio signal from New Horizons- – currently more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just over 162 million miles from Pluto – needed four hours and 26 minutes to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia,” said the US space agency.

“This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system, and the beginning of the mission’s primary objective: the exploration of Pluto and its many moons in 2015,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.

New Horizons has spent 1,873 days – about two-thirds of its flight time – in hibernation. Its 18 separate hibernation periods, from mid-2007 to late 2014, ranged from 36 days to 202 days in length. The team used hibernation to save wear and tear on spacecraft components and reduce the risk of system failures.

The awakening of the Horizons spaceship was a routine procedure, but according to Glen Fountain, mission’s project manager at the APL, this particular wake-up call was symbolic since it represented the start of “pre-encounter operations.”

With a total mass of 31 kg, the New Horizons spacecraft carries seven scientific instruments that include imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector.

The probe will begin observing the Pluto system on January 15.

New Horizons is expected to make its closest encounter with the Pluto on July 14, 2015, but plenty of highlights are expected both before and after. By mid-May, NASA team expects to get photos of the Pluto system and its moon better than that of Hubble Space Telescope.

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