NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has entered its first hibernation phase on April 7 and it will last until early September. The spacecraft is known for having performed the first-ever flyby of Pluto back in 2015. Approximately two and a half years of activity it never needed rest.
New Horizons is now about 3.5 billion miles away from Earth. The radio signals took more than five hours of travel at the speed of light to reach the APL mission operations center through NASA's Deep Space Network.
New Horizons Begins Hibernation
New Horizons has been awake for 852 days, which is the longest the shuttle has remained active since it was launched back in January 2006.
The benefit of New Horizons' hibernation process is that the shuttle will need less monitoring from the mission control on Earth, which is extremely important. The team is working on getting the next task ready for the spacecraft. The following mission will consist of flying by an icy body at the edge of the Solar System that's never been visited before.
"It frees up our small team to work on the flyby sequence, and that's really the main reason we do it," noted Alice Bowman, New Horizons' mission operations manager.
New Horizons will meet up with an object called 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019. The icy object was discovered back in 2014 and it is located in the Kuiper Belt - a massive cloud of small space rocks orbiting beyond Neptune.
This flyby target is very exciting for the team. It was selected in August 2015 before New Horizons managed to complete its Pluto flyby, but it was only approved by NASA in 2016.
It's highly important for the shuttle to be at its best during this mission, as we've never visited any other similar object in the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons will have to ace many commands during this mission, and understanding the processes needed to complete it will be a complex process.
The sleep mode allows it to make this entire transition easier. When the spacecraft is active, it needs a great deal of maintenance. Every three or four times a week, it needs a check-up and additional command needs uploading every two weeks.
Because every command has to be checked for the crew to make sure it's optimal, keeping the spacecraft working requires a large volume of work, which makes this hibernation process a small breath of fresh air for the team.
As round-trip communication with the New Horizons takes more than 10 hours because of the spacecraft's distance from Earth, every command has to be checked numerous times, and the interval necessary for the command to be recorded also causes a delay in the shuttle's functioning.
Refresher For The Team
All these processes turn communication and maintenance into very complex processes. However, the spacecraft only needs one check in every week and an additional monthly update about its safety and well-functioning. The hibernation process doesn't require the team to constantly upload new commands, as most of the spacecraft is unpowered.
The onboard flight computer can monitor the system and broadcast the status. NASA has practiced hibernation for a long time now, and it's been proven to be highly efficient. The process spares resources, both from the wear and tear of the spacecraft and from the teams that coordinate the projects from Earth.