9.3bn miles later, New Horizons wakes up for Pluto mission

8 Dec 2014

Illustration of the New Horizons probe as it approaches Pluto. Image via NASA

After a journey of over six years, the New Horizons probe sent by US space agency NASA to analyse the Pluto system at the far reaches of our solar system has awoken from hibernation.

Interestingly, when the probe was sent in January 2006, Pluto was still considered the ninth planet of our solar system as only seven months later it was ruled out after the definition of what a planet was had changed in August 2006.

However, this hasn’t stopped NASA scientists from carrying out the mission on a region where high-resolution photography and analysis have yet to be introduced.

At a current distance of just over 162m miles from Pluto, the probe has spent most of its existence in hibernation to survive the long-distances of space having spent approximately two-thirds of its existence – or 1,873 days – in sleep mode.

Awakening from its 18th cycle of hibernation, NASA are now checking its vital signs and equipment at a rather slow pace as, even at the speed of light, a message takes over four hours to reach Earth.

The actual mission to observe Pluto is due to begin on 15 January, but will reach its closest distance to the former planet almost seven months later on 14 July, but by May NASA expect some of the most detailed images of Pluto to-date.

New Horizons mission operations manager, Alice Bowman, and operations team member Karl Whittenburg watch the screens for data confirming that the New Horizons spacecraft had transitioned from hibernation to active mode on 6 December. Image via NASA

Musical awakening

As alarm clocks go, New Horizons was woken up to a particular piece of music that many Space Shuttle astronauts would have been familiar with, that is, Where My Heart Will Take Me by English tenor Russell Watson, who recorded a special version of the song to awaken the probe from its current hibernation.

The track was traditionally played to Space Shuttle astronauts to wake them and the tradition has carried over to the first spacecraft to be woken by song.

Speaking of the importance of the mission, New Horizons’ project scientist, Hal Weaver said, “New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before.

“For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic