NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft woke up from the final slumber to explore the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons. Launched on January 19, 2006, NASA’s $700 million mission is currently located close to 3 billion miles away from the Earth as it continues to move towards Pluto. The New Horizons will make its first close encounter with Pluto in January next year.
New Horizons sends a confirmation signal
At 9:30 p.m. EST on Saturday, Dec.6, scientists at the probe’s Mission Operations Center at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory received a confirmation signal from the spacecraft that it was now wide awake. On Saturday, NASA said that New Horizons was just 162 million miles away from Pluto. New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern confirmed that all systems of the probe were working properly.
The spacecraft will start surveying Pluto on January 15, 2015. However, its closest encounter with the dark planet will take place only on July 14, 2015. The probe will also explore the Kuiper belt, which is the outermost region of our solar system. Kuiper belt is full of icy, rocky objects that have remained almost unchanged since the formation of the solar system.
New Horizons is the fastest probe in history
New Horizons will be the first ever spacecraft to see Pluto and its five moons (Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx) up close. The probe is powered by a nuclear power source. It has traveled almost 3 billion miles in just nine years, making it the fastest probe in history. The spacecraft has spent about two-third of its travel time in hibernation. In total, it has spent 1,873 days sleeping during 18 hibernation, which helped reduce staff costs in the Mission Operations Center and prolong the life of instruments.
New Horizons will take close pictures of Pluto and its moons. Before it begins exploring the dwarf planet, the team on the ground will spend the next few weeks checking the probe’s instruments. They will test its sequences, commands, sensors, infrared spectrometer, UV spectrometer, a high-resolution telescopic camera and a space dust detector.