NASA’s New Horizons Probe Wakes Up to Study Kuiper Belt

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More than three and a half billion miles away, NASA’s New Horizons probe has woken up from its long slumber, ready to take on a new mission in the outer reaches of the solar system. New Horizons was launched with the intention of studying Pluto up close for the first time, but it had only a brief window of time to check out the former ninth planet. Now it’s on toward other Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), which could tell us even more about the solar system than Pluto did.

Most robotic exploration missions involve getting into a stable orbit around the target and setting up shop for several years. Cassini, which just dove into Saturn’s atmosphere this morning, spent more than a decade exploring the gas giant and its system of moons. However, Pluto is more than six times farther away than Saturn. New Horizons needed a lot of speed to reach Pluto, and it actually set the record for fastest rocket launch ever when it went up in 2006. If New Horizons were to enter orbit of Pluto, it would need to counter all that speed with a ton of fuel. That wasn’t feasible, so its up-close study of Pluto was a flyby that lasted just a few hours. The upshot is that the probe can now move on to other missions.

The new Horizons team got authorization for a mission extension in summer 2016 that allowed them to study other objects in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of ultra-cold objects in the outer solar system. Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet in large part because we realized it was really just a large KBO that was spotted long before we understood this region of space.

What KBO MU69 may look like.

The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode five months ago to conserve resources as it headed on toward the next objective. This past Monday, New Horizons sent back a signal confirming that it had woken up from hibernation and executed computer commands to begin bringing its systems back online. NASA is now hard at work to get the probe completely up and running so it can train its telescope on several distant KBOs. it will also continue analyzing the radiation and dust in the Kuiper Belt.

This fall’s observations are only the start. NASA will also use this period to prep New Horizons for its flyby of a previously unexplored KBO called MU69. The latter was discovered in 2014 and is believed to be about 20 miles (30 kilometers) in diameter. The spacecraft is already on course for MU69, but the team wants to install a new fault-prevention system before its arrival. The plan is to put New Horizons back into hibernation mode on December 9th. It will near MU69 late next year and will make its flyby on January 1st, 2019.

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