Artist rendering of New Horizons approaching Pluto. Image source: Solarviews

The American probe, “New Horizons”, awoke from its nine-year slumber (8.88 years to be precise) on Saturday, ready to explore the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

“New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space, nearly three billion miles from home, but its rest is nearly over,” said Alice Bowman, the craft’s operations manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory outside Washington.

The probe is now 2.9 billion miles (about 4.7 billion kilometers) away from Earth, preparing to initiate it’s pre-programmed commands. It was launched back in January 2006 and has been in hibernation for 1873 days (almost two thirds of its journey).  Every few months, NASA engineers would awake the probe to check its system functionality.

“Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at APL. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

The aim of this mission

Artist’s rendering of Pluto. Image credit: NASA.

New Horizons aim is to study the icy body of Pluto and it’s largest moon, Charon. The craft will begin its exploration in January at a distance of about 260 kilometers from the body.

“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.

The New Horizons team will spend the next few weeks checking the spacecraft, making sure its system and science instruments are operating nominally, and continue to build and test new command sequences.

The technology behind the probe

New Horizons will be exploring Pluto with seven science instruments that include advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multi-color camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector.

The closest approach to Pluto will occur on the 14th July, however there are many more highlights to be expected before then, including views of the Pluto system better than what is capable of the Hubble Telescope, by mid may.

“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before,” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of APL. “For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them.”

The significance of this mission

Pluto lies in the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy bodies orbiting the sun that are believed to be remnants from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

“It’s hard to underestimate the evolution that’s taking place in our view of the architecture and content of our solar system as a result of the discovery … of the Kuiper Belt,” lead researcher Alan Stern said.

In the time New Horizons began its journey to Pluto, the body has been demoted from planetary status to being a dwarf planet. By the time it reaches pluto, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) could decide that Pluto is once again formally considered a Planet.

The decision is a very difficult one because of our lack of knowledge on the body itself, which is why New Horizons may be the key to determining, with certainty, what Pluto is.  In any case, the New Horizons mission contains the prospect of humanity knowing much more about our distant neighbor, which would not have been possible without the staff at NASA.

The Staff

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is the principal investigator and leads the mission; SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

WATCH: New Horizons Documentary

Image credit: JHU/APL

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