26 June 2019
The New Horizons probe will begin exploring Pluto in January for six months. It's a mere 260 million kilometers away. Photo: AFP
The New Horizons probe will begin exploring Pluto in January for six months. It's a mere 260 million kilometers away. Photo: AFP

NASA Pluto probe wakes up after nine-year slumber in space

It’s awake now and any time soon, the New Horizons probe will begin a rendezvous with Pluto and its moons.

In January and for the next six months, the spacecraft will explore the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system.

The  probe’s on-board had been programmed to make a “wake-up call” on Dec.  6 at 3 p.m. About 90 minutes later, it sent a signal to control center, informing that it is in “active” mode, according to French news agency AFP.

It took four hours and 25 minutes for the signal to cover 4.7 billion kilometers and reach the mission operations team at Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University where the New Horizons was designed and manufactured.

At the moment the probe is a “mere” 260 million kilometers from Pluto.

“We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” said Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at APL.

“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 practicing the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft,” he said.

“We are ready to go.”

The probe has seven scientific instruments aboard including advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector.

All this payload as well as telecommunication equipment, flight computer and other systems are powered by a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

The spacecraft consumes less electricity than two 100-watt light bulbs but that is enough to get the job done and beam data back to the planet.

Apart from making high resolution photos, the probe will explore Pluto’s atmosphere and the way it interacts with the sun.

The mission is set to gather information about geology and topography of Pluto and its large moon Charon, measuring and mapping their surface temperatures and compositions, and studying Pluto’s smaller moons.

The probe is also going to search for new moons and possible rings.

The spacecraft will finally give exact measurements of Pluto’s size which were difficult to ascertain from a greater distance due to its atmosphere.

So space scientists will be able to tell whether Pluto is bigger or smaller than Eris, another dwarf planet, the discovery of which in 2005 led to Pluto’s demotion from a regular planet to a dwarf one.

New Horizons’ post-Pluto mission is expected to include the study of other Kuiper belt objects. It is to end in 2026 but may be extended into 2030s, if the spacecraft remains operational at that time.

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