New Horizons Spacecraft is now awake at the end of our Solar System

New Horizons Spacecraft is now awake at the end of our Solar System

New Horizons is up and ready for making some more revelations as it flies towards the Ultima Thule.

NASA launched an interplanetary space probe, called New Horizons, as a part of the New Frontiers Program. As it was assigned the task of exploring the Pluto System, a lot of complications were attached to it. Alan Stern led a team of engineers from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the John Hopkins University as they created this revolutionary spacecraft. It was launched in 2006 with the aim of studying various objects of the Kuiper Belt. It is only the 5th spacecraft to attain the escape velocity that is needed to leave the Solar System.

The first stop in the long journey of this mission came in February 2007 when it passed by the biggest planet of our solar system, Jupiter. New Horizons found a stream of charged particles around the planet and observed some variations in these bubbles of plasma. It also took some of the best pictures of Io, which is the volcanic moon of Jupiter. This spacecraft provided us with the clearest pictures of the Tvashtar Volcano. A volcanic fallout bigger than the state of Texas is clearly evident in them and is simply a treat to watch. As soon as it flew further in space, the spacecraft was put into hibernation to conserve energy. It sprung back to life in December 2014 as it approached Pluto.

New Horizons began Pluto exploration in July 2015 and it got so involved that no communication was observed during the closest approaches to Pluto and Charon. The pictures of Pluto revealed a 3,500 meters high mountain range which is believed to be only a 100 million years old. Scientists linked it to some recent geological activity as John Spencer, the Deputy Leader of Geology, Imaging, and Geophysics of New Horizons, said,

This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds.”

Astronomers also found signs of strange water ice hills that were floating in frozen Nitrogen. Similarly, evidence of a past subsurface ocean was discovered on the surface of Charon. After making all these incredible discoveries, New Horizons went back to hibernation.

This spacecraft came back to life earlier this month as it continues its journey towards the edge of our solar system. Its proposed destination is an icy body called ‘Ultima Thule’ and the expected date of flyby is 1st January 2019. It has kept the research team quite busy recently as it has been in and out of hibernation twice since April 2017 and things won’t change in the near future as their schedule seems full till the day of the flyby. In hibernation, most of the components of the spacecraft are powered off to prevent wear and tear. It also relieves the research team on the ground as they don’t need to do much during that phase as the spacecraft flies on an Autopilot. Alice Bowman, the Operations Manager of New Horizons Mission mentioned that in the following words:

We have a small team and when we put the spacecraft into hibernation, it takes less time for us. We can be spending it on developing the command set for the flyby, which is what we were doing.”

New Horizons responded to the commands of the research team by sending a signal which confirmed that it is live and ready for some action. According to Bowman, they will spend the coming two and a half months in uploading the new software on the spacecraft. They will also look for any scientific discovery (which occurred during hibernation) or leftover data in its recorder. On 13th August, it will be brought out of its spin state in order to stabilize the probe. The rest of the month will be utilized in focusing one of its cameras on the target. Bowman referred to that by saying,

We believe that’s when we’ll first be able to see it.”

The critical time for the team will begin post-August as the probe will take final steps towards the Ultima Thule. They will work on the exact commands that are necessary to ensure a perfect flyby sequence. It is easier said than done as it is quite small in size (20-23 miles in diameter). The fact that it is a dark body among a field of bright stars adds to the difficulty. That’s the reason why the team wants to get as close to it as possible. The words of Bowman are pretty much self-explanatory as she said,

It’s going to be very challenging.

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