The New Horizons probe has captured images of numerous planets in our solar system, and now it will embark on a mission to a new place.
The New Horizons Probe Wakes Up
On June 5, New Horizons woke up after six months of electronic hibernation. NASA ordered the probe to go to sleep on Dec. 21.
"It saves wear and tear on the system, and it frees up personnel to do flyby planning," said mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute about the hibernation.
The hibernation period also conserved energy. During the hibernation, New Horizons sends a beacon back to Earth on a weekly basis as a way to know that it is still functional.
Upon waking up, New Horizons phoned NASA via radio signals to let it know that it was operational. It is currently 3.8 billion miles from Earth.
"It was very nice to have everything run so smoothly," said mission operations manager Alice Bowman. "We didn't have to do any reboots, any reconfigurations of the ground systems or anything like that. It went very smooth, and we were very happy."
The Next Flyby Mission For New Horizons
As New Horizons heads towards the edge of the solar system, NASA plans a flyby to a distant rock called MU69, or Ultima Thule. It will occur more than six months from now on New Year's Eve 2018.
Ultima Thule is a remnant of the solar system's birth. Due to its extreme distance from the sun, it is in a frozen state. Researchers hope that the frozen record on Ultima Thule will provide some context about the formation of the solar system.
New Horizons is 162 million miles away from Ultima Thule. It will travel there at roughly 760,000 miles each day. To prohibit communication mishaps, New Horizons will spin at slow speeds.
"It allows us to load software, burn flash, update ephemerides (navigation files), do comm checks with our instruments," said Bowman. "Basically do all the housekeeping to get ready for the encounter."
NASA even developed two flyby scenarios. The intent is to travel 2,100 miles away. However, if there is any concern, NASA can then easily move the probe further out of harm's way with a distance of 6,200 miles.
New Horizons launched in 2006. Over the years, some of the missions have taken the probe to Jupiter and Pluto. After the Ultima Thule mission, NASA does not have any known missions planned for New Horizons.