Artistic impression of Pluto and its moon Charon (Click Image to Download)
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is set to fully awaken from its final hibernation period on December 6 after a nine-year voyage to Pluto.
Once New Horizons awakens on December 6, it will transmit radio signals to mission control center located at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. The spacecraft will send a message to Earth confirming it remains operational an hour-and-a-half after it awakes. It will take four hours for its message to reach Earth, however, It’s scheduled to come to within 6,200 miles from the surface of Pluto on July 14, 2015, the closest approach to the planet by any man-made spacecraft.
The mission is man’s first visit beyond Neptune’s orbit and into the Kuiper Belt, which is home to Pluto and thousands of objects that have not yet been identified, according to website Spaceflight Now.
“This is the first look at this new zone of rocky, icy planets. This is what New Horizons is supposed to do,” said Michael Buckley, a public information officer for John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to ABC News.
New Horizons is some 2.9 billion miles from our planet. It was launched in January 2006 as the payload of an Atlas V rocket. At the time of New Horizon’s launch, Pluto was still considered a planet. Scientists, however, demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet later that year.
The spacecraft has been in and out of hibernation 18 times over the last nine years to conserve power. New Horizons transmits a beep once a week to tell scientists it’s still alive.
Experts expect to get very clear images of Pluto once New Horizons gets within range of the planet in April 2015. They also expect to see the clearest view of the planet’s terrain by May. New Horizons will send home the data throughout 2015 and most of 2016.
Scientists hope NASA will continue to fund and extend the mission further into the Kuiper Belt.