The New Horizons spacecraft is due to wake up from hibernation on November 6, in preparation for an encounter with Pluto, and its system of moons. This will be the first time in history that a spacecraft from Earth has visited this icy dwarf.
New Horizons will spend six months observing Pluto, as the spacecraft approaches the system, makes its closest approach, and passes the distant bodies. That extended encounter will begin in January 2015, and is nearly certain to engage the interest of amateur astronomers worldwide.
"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. We are ready to go," Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) said.
This mission, launched in 2006, promises to deliver the first close-up images ever taken of the distant globe, that orbits the sun 40 times further away from the stellar body than does the Earth. When New Horizons launched toward Pluto, that body was considered the ninth planet in the Solar System. Since that time, Pluto has been demoted to the class of dwarf planets.
New Horizons has been placed into hibernation mode and woken up again several times during its long flight to the edges of the Solar System. The hibernation period that ends on December 6 will be the last one for the spacecraft, which will remain in full operation for the remainder of its mission.
Currently, New Horizons is more than one billion miles from Earth. At this distance, radio waves traveling over 186,000 miles every second take more than 90 minutes to reach the craft from our home planet.
On July 14, 2015, New Horizons will pass just 8,509 miles away from Pluto, taking images and collecting data far more detailed than anything currently available. The best pictures currently available of Pluto contain just a few pixels in their total images.
Pluto was discovered on February 18, 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, an assistant at Lowell Observatory. Charon, the largest moon of Pluto, was found on June 22, 1978 by astronomer James Christy. Four other satellites have been discovered in the system since that time. In 2006, the main body was re-designated as a dwarf planet, a large member of the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies orbiting far from the Sun.