NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will soon wake up from hibernation to prepare for its encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is set to start up on Dec. 6, a month ahead of its initial approach to the dwarf planet.
New Horizons was launched in January 2006 to study Pluto, its moons and Kuiper Belt objects. Pluto was still considered a planet at the time of its launch but the International Astronomical Union (IAU) later reclassified it as a dwarf planet, a celestial planet-sized object orbiting the sun that is not considered a planet, moon or natural satellite.
Scientists hope that the New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission will shed more light on the icy worlds at the edge of the Solar System.
Over the past nine years, New Horizons has been mostly in hibernation mode, which means that much of it is unpowered. It has spent 1,873 days in sleep mode spread over 18 hibernation periods ranging between 36 to 202 days to conserve power during its long journey, reduce wear and tear of electronics aboard it, and reduce operational costs.
Mission operators only wake New Horizons to calibrate the instruments onboard, check systems, collect science data, conduct course correction when needed, and rehearse Pluto-encounter activities, but its long slumber days will soon be over.
"New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space -- nearly three billion miles from home -- but its rest is nearly over," said New Horizons mission operations manager Alice Bowman. "It's time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history."
The spacecraft was programmed to wake up at 3 p.m. EST on Dec. 6. New Horizons will then transmit a message to Earth that it is in active mode. It will take over four hours before this signal reaches Earth regardless of it traveling at light speed.
After the spacecraft's system is activated come six weeks of preparations for New Horizon's encounter with Pluto. During this period, mission controllers will check the spacecraft's system and conduct some final tests before the much-awaited rendezvous.
"It's hard for me to believe, but after almost nine years of flight, we are literally on Pluto's doorstep, on schedule, in good health, and on course," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. "On Jan. 15, we begin what we came here for: the start of Pluto encounter data-collection."
New Horizon's observation of the Pluto system will begin next month and will continue until July 2015. It will get nearest Pluto on July 14, 2015 at a proximity of 6,200 miles away from the dwarf planet's surface.