NASA’s Horizons Spacecraft Waking Up To Meet Pluto and Make History

NASA New Horizons spacecraft 1 photo
Photo: NASA
Eight years ago, the Atlas V rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the New Horizons spacecraft on top to launch it in a 9.5 year mission to reach Pluto, the smallest, furthest “planet” in our solar system. The probe is closing in now and it will go online soon.
After 18 hibernation stasis, New Horizons will wake up for the last time on December 6th at 3:00 pm EST, according to NASA’s report. The spacecraft is about 2.9 billion miles (4.6 billion km) from Earth and has to go another 162 million miles (260 million km) to reach Pluto.

“New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space – nearly three billion miles from home – but its rest is nearly over,” says Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “It’s time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history.”

Looks like we’re in for another year of deep space history next year, following the Rosetta mission on comet 67P.

The mission

Since its launch in 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation, a mode developed by NASA to conserve power, prolong the electronics lifespan and cut down the amount of scientists needed to keep track of it. Twice a year, the machine is “woken up” for a regular check out, recalibrating the instruments and science data gathering.

Then, after actually reaching Pluto, the spacecraft will flyby and study the planet’s topology, geology, composition and temperatures, being just in its late “summer”. Next time Pluto will be this close to the sun will happen in about 100 years, time when it will be basically frozen.

So basically, New Horizons will make history by being the first spacecraft to analyze the planet and its moons in detail while they’re in a much warmer state.

The nuclear-powered spacecraft weighs 1,954 lb (478 kg) on Earth and used adopted a slingshot trajectory using Jupiter’s gravitational pull to be sent towards Pluto, whom will meet on July 14th, 2015, from about 8,000 miles (13,000 km) away.

Another thing to take note of is that the data send by the craft take about 4 and a half hours to reach our planet due to the huge distance. Instruments mounted on the New Horizons include infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multicolor camera, a high resolution telescopic camera, two particle analyzers, space-dust detectors and radio equipment.

Pluto, the ice dwarf relic

There are three planet classifications and Pluto is par of the furthest third zone from the Sun which makes it a frozen icy dwarf planet. The other zones is the “rocky world” which is closest to our star and holds Earth, Venus, Mercury and Mars; and there’s also a middle “gas giants” region, home to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Pluto is part of a huge array of ice dwarfs of the Kuiper Belt, yet no spacecraft has been sent to a planet in this class. Reason why this mission is so important.

The temperatures on Pluto’s surface are situated at roughly 40 degrees above absolute zero (-387 F or -233 C) meaning that life form could hardly exist there. The water needed to support organisms is basically rock-like at these temperatures. Things could be different inside the planet, which is considered to be warmer and contain a deep ocean.

Pluto has an atmosphere that lacks oxygen. Instead it has nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. It’s pressure counts in for about 3 to 100 microbars, which translates into 3 to 100 millionths of the surface pressure we have on Earth.

Despite the huge distance from the Sun, during daytime, there’s still enough light to read a book on Pluto. But you won’t probably do that if you’d hypothetically arrive on its surface. The landscape will get you with its icy hills, valleys, craters and other topographic features being lit by only a thousandth part of the light we get at home.

It would look like a very dark overcast day from here on Earth, but the sky would be clear with a tiny sun and the rest of the stars being visible along with Charon, Pluto’s moon which would appear 7 times larger compared to ours.

Sounds interesting right? You can check for more facts on NASA's page here, while waiting for fresh imagery and data to be released next year from near our most mysterious mini-planet at 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) away.
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