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NASA's New Horizons Probe Is Now Awake And Preparing For A New Year's Day Flyby

Jun 06, 2018 07:40 PM EDT
New Horizons Illustration
Artist's impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles away from. Right now, the spacecraft is out of hibernation mode and getting prepped for another historic flyby.
(Photo : NASA | Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory | Southwest Research Institute | Steve Gribben)

New Horizons is up and getting ready for its next mission — a New Year's Day flyby of the Kuiper Belt object dubbed as Ultima Thule.

After 165 days in hibernation, the NASA spacecraft will embark on another historic flight. Its mission on Ultima Thule will be the farthest planetary encounter ever.

New Horizons Now

As of June 5, the spacecraft is almost 3.8 billion miles from Earth, a press release from the New Horizons website reports. Radio signals sent at light speed from the probe reaches Earth 5 hours and 40 minutes later.

The New Horizons spacecraft has been in hibernation mode since Dec. 21, 2017, a necessary break to save resources. On June 5, researchers nudged New Horizons awake to prep for the historically significant mission set for New Year's Day.

Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, notes that the spacecraft is in good condition and is operating normally following its exit from hibernation mode.

Ultima Thule Flyby

Now, the team is gearing up for the historic pass by the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, which lies a billion miles beyond Pluto. Ultima Thule is a tough target not just for its distance, according to The Verge, but also due to its modest size of 20 to 23 miles in diameter.

This mission follows New Horizons' flyby of Pluto and its moons in 2015, which yielded groundbreaking data on this distant part of the solar system.

"Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August," Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute, says in a statement.

Researchers will be collecting navigation tracking data during the next three days as well as sending the first commands to the onboard computers for the start of flyby preparations.

Preparations are expected to be extensive and will include memory updates, Kuiper belt science data retrieval, and a series of subsystems and science-instrument checkouts, among others.

On August, actual flyby operations will begin as the probe sets on its final approach to Ultima Thule. The first of seven maneuvers to change trajectory will take place on October, and the last one is set for Dec. 22. Then, on Christmas Day, the flyby sequence will begin.

For this mission, the team wants the spacecraft to get closer to Ultima Thule than it was able to do to Pluto three years ago.

"We have a lot to do," Bowman says. "It's going to be very challenging."

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