NASA bolsters Pluto-bound spacecraft for 2015 visit

Mission operators at Johns Hopkins University give New Horizons probe annual update, check-up

When you are on a 3 billion mile trip through the universe at over 34,000 mph, you might need a check-up or two to make sure everything is functioning right.

 That’s exactly what’s going on this week as NASA said it will soon update and checkout its Pluto-bound spacecraft known as New Horizons.

 Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will begin the spacecraft’s eighth check-up since the satellite launched in 2006. It will be the last before next year’s rendezvous with Pluto.

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 NASA said that flight controllers have configured their ground systems to receive telemetry from the spacecraft as it transitioned out of its low-activity hibernation mode, where it had been since mid-January.

 From NASA: “Over the next few days the team will transmit more commands through the Deep Space Network – NASA’s worldwide network of large-antenna stations – to configure New Horizons for the checkout. Initial activity ranges from refreshing the processors on the spacecraft’s computers, to testing the sun sensors New Horizons uses to automatically determine its position in space, to enabling the small thrusters that position New Horizons for observations and other operations. Additionally, over four intense days in late June, the final planned version of the autonomy software that guides collection of and protects the data collected during Pluto close approach will be uploaded into the spacecraft’s memory.”

 NASA said that over the next 11 weeks it will check out the spacecraft’s primary and backup operating systems as well as all seven scientific instruments – the instruments will also be calibrated and set to gather “cruise science” data that includes a distant examination of the surfaces of Pluto and its moons. On e camera, know as the LORRI will also be used to carry out the first optical navigation campaign – snapping images that will help the team home in on Pluto – and the navigation team will track the spacecraft to refine its orbit, NASA said

 A trajectory correction maneuver is tentatively scheduled for July 15 – if needed – to keep New Horizons on a straight path toward the Pluto system. New Horizons will cross the orbit of Neptune on Aug. 25.

 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.

 Some other interesting facts about New Horizons, from NASA:

 New Horizons is nearly 2.7 billion miles (nearly 4.3 billion kilometers) from Earth, speeding away from the sun at 32,950 miles per hour.

At that distance – about 29 times the distance between Earth and the sun – a radio signal from Earth needs 3 hours, 58 minutes to reach New Horizons.

Since launch on Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons has covered 90% of a voyage that culminates with a six-month, January-to-July encounter that includes closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

 NASA also said last week it would use the Hubble Space Telescope to explore a small area of the Kuiper Belt is a vast debris field of icy bodies left over from the solar system's formation 4.6 billion years ago where the agency might send New Horizons after it visits Pluto.

 Specifically NASA said it was looking for what’s known as a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) for the outbound spacecraft to visit. A KBO has never been seen up close because the belt is so far from the sun, stretching out to a distance of 5 billion miles into a never-before-visited frontier of the solar system.

 Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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