NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has successfully awoken from a planned 165-day hibernation period ahead of its historic flyby of the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, which is set to take place on New Year's Day 2019. New Horizons is already an impressive 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion km) from Earth, and has just 162 million miles (262 million km) of open space left to its next ambitious rendezvous.
New Horizons made history back in July 2015, when it made a close proximity pass of the enigmatic dwarf planet Pluto. The data collected during this flyby revolutionized our understanding of Pluto, revealing it to be a surprisingly diverse and active world, playing host to complex geological processes.
Sadly, New Horizons was moving far too fast to make orbit around Pluto, and, having made the most of its time with the dwarf planet, continued to race farther into the outer edges of our solar system. Its success characterizing the Plutonian system did not mark the end of its mission, but rather the beginning of a new adventure. Its next target – the Kuiper Belt object now known as Ultima Thule.
Whilst it may sound like an imposing title belonging to a super villain from the Marvel comic universe, the name of New Horizons' latest target is actually rooted in medieval mythology. Thule was the name of a mythical island supposedly located to the far north of the world. Ultima Thule literally translates to "beyond Thule," and was selected as the name of New Horizons' next target because it symbolized the ground-breaking exploratory nature of the new mission phase.
New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule, which is due to take place on New Year's Day 2019, will send the probe sailing into the record books once more, this time as the probe that made the most distant planetary encounter in the history of robotic space exploration.
Ultima Thule is located roughly a billion miles beyond the orbit of Pluto. In an attempt to ensure that New Horizons arrived at its remote destination in the best possible condition, the probe was placed in a state of hibernation.
This period of relative inactivity, which began on December 21, 2017, and lasted for 165 days, came to an end at 2:12 a.m. EDT on June 5, when jubilant mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland received a radio transmission confirming that New Horizons had successfully awoken.
From the moment that the spacecraft sent its message, it took an incredible 5 hours and 40 minutes to reach Earth. The pioneering probe is in good shape, and operating as expected, with the team busy collecting navigational data and sending the first post wake-up commands.
In the next two months, mission operators will prepare for New Horizons' rendezvous with Ultima Thule by updating the probe's memory systems, collecting data on the Kuiper Belt, and checking the condition of vital scientific instruments and subsystems. The spacecraft is due to make its first observations of Ultima Thule in August, which will help mission scientists to plan out the minutia of the approaching flyby.
"Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August," comments mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
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