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New Horizons Pluto Probe Answers Its Wake-up Call Three Billion Miles
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The New Horizons spacecraft has woken out of its deep sleep after
nearly nine years and three billion miles of travel to reach its
primary target – Pluto.

The NASA probe has gone the farthest that any space mission has ever
gone to reach its primary target and has been switched into active
mode to prep for the exploration of Pluto and its many moons next
year.

  
  
“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,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from
Southwest Research Institute.

Operators at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)
confirmed over the weekend that New Horizons, following pre-programmed
computer commands, was now wide awake. The team waited for more than
four hours and 26 minutes for the signal to reach back to NASA’s Deep
Space Network station in Canberra, Australia, since the craft is
currently more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth and just over 162
million miles from Pluto.

Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during a planned
encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon
Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during a planned
encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. (Credit: Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
(JHUAPL/SwRI))

The craft launched in January 2006 and spent nearly two-thirds of its
flight time in hibernation periods ranging from 36 days to 202 days
long. This downtime helped the mission team to avoid wear and tear on
the probe’s components and cut down on the risk of the systems
failing.

“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 wake-up sequence was uploaded onto New Horizons’ computer in
August and took about an hour and a half to bring the craft out of
hibernation.

Now that it’s active, the team will spend the next few weeks checking
the spacecraft’s systems and science instruments to make sure
everything is running smoothly. They’ll also be testing the
computer-command sequences that will guide New Horizons through its
flight to and reconnaissance with Pluto.

The probe is kitted out with a seven-instrument payload that includes
advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact
multicolour camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful
particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector. All of which will
start pointing at the Pluto system from January 15 next year.

New Horizons will make its closest pass to the dwarf planet on July
14, but before then it will already have captured views of the system
that far outstrip the images we’ve gathered with the Hubble Space
Telescope.

“ 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 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.”

For more on dwarf planet exploration and other science and tech news,
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