With a couple of hiccups, NASA satellite half way to Pluto

NASA New Horizons satellite taking aim at Pluto

nasa new horizons trajectory
Over-coming a couple "stressful" hiccups, NASA's New Horizons satellite mission to Pluto has reached the halfway mark.

Launched in January 2006, the New Horizons satellite has been hurtling toward Pluto at about 50,000 mph. Even at that rate the 1,054lb satellite will get it close to the dwarf planet sometime around July 2015.

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Once it is there - or actually within 6,000 miles of the 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 (about 60 meters) 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.

According to NASA since May the spacecraft has faced a couple challenges, including:

  • A self-reset of the main command and data handling computer on July 2. Such resets have occurred a few times since launch, most recently in 2008, and the spacecraft operations team has gotten very good at handling them and then re-engaging the mission timeline. In fact, within barely a day, by late on July 3, New Horizons was back on its flight plan - not bad considering the team is dealing with a round-trip communication time (for signals between Earth and spacecraft) of about five hours, NASA stated.
  • On Oct. 6, when NASA checked for monthly telemetry data from the spacecraft, there was no signal received on the ground! This had never happened in almost five years of flight, and it could have been very serious, as it could have meant a major malfunction aboard the spacecraft. But as it turned out, the problem wasn't on the spacecraft at all - it was a misconfiguration of the receiving antenna. "Needless to say, we all had a little more stress that day than we'd planned, but the telemetry did show that everything aboard our spacecraft was functioning as it should," NASA stated.

The satellite is flying in hibernation mode until November when its operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory wake the craft up for  10days  to re-point communication antenna to account for the motion of the Earth around the Sun, and to gather tracking data for navigation. NASA said it will also uplink the set of detailed computerized instructions that will direct spacecraft activities through Jan. 2, when another 10-day hibernation wakeup with similar goals is scheduled.

Finally, NASA noted that New Horizons is now the record holder for being the farthest operating space dust detector ever. NASA said its venerable Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft dust detectors quit operating at New Horizon's current distance back in the early 1980s.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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