NASA: Pluto-bound spacecraft wakes up, sets up shop 2.9 million miles away

NASA’s New Horizons prepping for historic Pluto 2015 visit

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Credit: NASA

Talk about a wake-up call. NASA confirmed that its Pluto-bound spacecraft came out of hibernation over the weekend to get ready for its July 2015 encounter with the dwarf planet.

Specifically NASA said spacecraft operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., confirmed at 9:53 p.m. (EST) that the ship -- New Horizons -- operating on pre-programmed computer commands, had switched from hibernation to “active” mode. Moving at light speed, the radio signal from New Horizons – currently more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just over 162 million miles from Pluto – needed four hours and 26 minutes to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia.

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 New Horizons blasted off on January 19, 2006, and has spent 1,873 days — about two-thirds of its flight time — in hibernation, NASA said. Its 18 separate hibernation periods, from mid-2007 to late 2014, ranged from 36 days to 202 days in length. The team used hibernation to save wear and tear on spacecraft components and reduce the risk of system failures.

“The wake-up sequence had been programmed into New Horizons' onboard computer in August, and started aboard the spacecraft at 3 p.m. EST on Dec. 6. About 90 minutes later, New Horizons began transmitting word to Earth on its condition, including the report that it is back in "active" mode, NASA said

 The New Horizons team will spend the next several weeks checking out the spacecraft, making sure its systems and science instruments are operating properly. They’ll also continue to build and test the computer-command sequences that will guide New Horizons through its flight to and reconnaissance of the Pluto system. New Horizons will begin observing the Pluto system on Jan. 15. 

 New Horizons has a seven-instrument science payload that includes:

  • Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.
  • Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto's atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
  • REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.
  • LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto's far side and provides high resolution geologic data.
  • SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric "escape rate" and observes Pluto's interaction with solar wind.
  • PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto's atmosphere.
  • SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

Once arriving near Pluto - or actually within 6,000 miles of the dwarf planet and its largest moon, Charon -- New Horizons will take close-up pictures in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best pictures of Pluto will depict surface features as small as 200 feet across, NASA said.

 NASA said the spacecraft will look for ultraviolet emissions from Pluto's atmosphere and make the best global maps of Pluto and Charon in green, blue, red and a special wavelength that is sensitive to methane frost on the surface. The satellite will also take spectral maps in the near infrared, offering up details about Pluto's and Charon's surface compositions and locations and temperatures of these materials.

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