New Horizons began its nearly 9 year and 3 billion mile journey back on January 19, 2006. The Pluto-bound probe hibernated for nearly two-thirds of its trip.
Over the weekend, researchers at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD. received confirmation of New Horizons switching from hibernation to ‘active’ mode.
That confirmation took 4 hours and 26 minutes to travel from the New Horizons probe to NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia.
“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.
Glen Fountain, New Horizons’ project manager, called the wake-up procedure “routine,” but also said, “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”
What’s Next for New Horizons
The New Horizons team will take the next few weeks to make sure the probe checks out. All seven of its instruments will be tested to make sure they are operating correctly. And, computer-command sequences that will be used to navigate New Horizons around Pluto will also be tested.
The probe will begin observing Pluto and its neighboring moons on January 15. The best show won’t come until May at the earliest. By mid-May, New Horizons view of Pluto will be even better than what the Hubble Space Telescope has provided. New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto is expected on July 14. The images of the dwarf planet and its moon will be breathtaking.
New Horizons Project Scientists Hal Weaver describes the New Horizons mission as a “journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before.”
Life After Pluto
New Horizons’ mission could extend past Pluto. The Hubble Space Telescope found three Kuiper Belt objects the New Horizons probe could visit after its rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015.
The New Horizons team plans to submit a proposal to NASA in late 2016 for an extended mission towards one of the three Kuiper Belt objects.