After Nine Years, New Horizons is Finally at Pluto


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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.

Source :chinatopix

NASA prepares to wake New Horizons ahead of historic Pluto flyby


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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft comes out of hibernation on December 6 at 3:00 pm EST. Now about 2.9 billion miles (4.6 billion km) from Earth, and 162 million miles (260 million km) from Pluto, the spacecraft will be put through a month-long preparation for its six month flyby of Pluto, with the primary phase of the mission slated to begin on January 15.

New Horizons’ current state of hibernation means that most of the spacecraft’s systems are shut down except for monitors and a weekly beacon-status transmission. So far, the probe has gone through 18 hibernation phases since it launched in 2006. This works out to 1,873 days in hibernation or two-thirds of the Pluto flyby mission.

The hibernation technique, which NASA pioneered, is a way of conserving onboard resources, cutting down on mission control personnel time, reducing time on NASA’s Deep Space Network, and saving wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics. New Horizons was reawoken periodically over the years to check the systems, rehearse the flyby, perform course corrections, and upload software updates. Last August, the probe was programmed to wake up on the scheduled December date. NASA says that 90 minutes after coming back online, New Horizons will transmit a confirmation back to Earth. However, this signal will not reach Earth for 4 hours and 25 minutes due to the enormous distances involved.

Once out of hibernation, mission control will put New Horizons through its final system checks and course corrections, download science data, and write and upload software updates. During the flyby, the probe will use its suite of seven scientific instruments to map Pluto, study its topology, temperatures, geology, and composition, as well as study the planet’s moons and search for additional satellites.

One particular reason for the missions timing is that Pluto is currently in its late “summer” and scientists want to take the opportunity to study the planet’s atmosphere before it freezes again during its century-long winter. New Horizon’s instruments includes an advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, compact multicolor camera, high-resolution telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, space-dust detector, and two radio experiments.

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Real picture of Pluto and its Moon Charon taken by New Horizons

The US$650 million New Horizons mission was launched January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The unmanned 478 kg (1,054 lb) nuclear-powered spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto and then on to study selected objects in the Kuiper Belt. Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, New Horizons passed the orbit of Neptune on August 24 and will rendezvous with Pluto on July 14 of next year, which it will pass at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi).

According to NASA, the mission was fast tracked due to the increasing knowledge about the Kuiper Belt. Since Pluto is the most accessible object originating from there, it seemed a logical way to gain direct information. In addition, it is the first mission sent to the only unvisited planet (if you’re old school) in the Solar System.

NASA says that the flight team will be kept busy even after the flyby, because so much data will have been recorded that it won’t all be transmitted to Earth until October 2016.

“We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” says Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “New Horizons might have spent most of its cruise time across nearly three billion miles of space sleeping, but our team has done anything but, conducting a flawless flight past Jupiter just a year after launch, putting the spacecraft through annual workouts, plotting out each step of the Pluto flyby and even practising the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft. We are ready to go.”

Source : gizmag