NASA craft to probe Pluto after nine-year journey

December 7, 2014 by Jean-Louis Santini
This artist's concept obtained December 1, 2014 courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute shows the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its three moons in summer 2015

An American probe that will explore Pluto woke up from its slumber Saturday, after a nine-year journey to take a close look at the distant body for the first time.

"New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space, nearly three billion miles from home, but its rest is nearly over," said Alice Bowman, the craft's operations manager at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory outside Washington.

The probe came out of hibernation and transmitted a message to Earth.

New Horizons was launched in January 2006 and was in hibernation for 1,873 days, about two thirds of its journey, to preserve the craft's electric power and minimize resources needed to monitor it.

During its trip, NASA engineers woke the craft every few months to check if its systems were still functioning.

The craft's computer has also been sending a weekly message to Earth that travels four hours to get here.

It aims to study Pluto, an icy body with several moons near the outer reaches of our solar system.

New Horizons begins its exploration of Pluto in January at a distance of about 260 million kilometers (160 million miles) from the body.

The probe will pass closest to Pluto, which travels on an elliptical orbit, in July, just before it ends its research.

During its mission, New Horizons will collect data on Pluto's topography and its largest moon Charon, giving astronomers an up-close look at the dim surfaces that are difficult to see from Earth.

The craft carries onboard seven instruments including infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera and a space dust detector.

All of the instruments aboard New Horizons draw power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which provides less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs, scientists said.

After New Horizons finishes its six-month investigation of Pluto, it will pass near other objects in the Kuiper Belt, a vast ring of debris left over from the solar system's birth 4.6 billion years ago.

Scientists identified three possible objects in the Kuiper Belt, about 1.5 billion kilometers from Pluto, that New Horizons could also investigate.

Pluto is about 2,300 kilometers in diameter, smaller than Earth's moon, and has a mass about 500 times less than Earth.

Pluto and its five moons circle the sun every 247.7 years.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union withdrew Pluto's status as a planet given its small size, reclassifying it as a dwarf planet and leaving the solar system with eight planets.

Explore further: New Horizons set to wake up for Pluto encounter

Related Stories

New Horizons set to wake up for Pluto encounter

November 13, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA's New Horizons spacecraft comes out of hibernation for the last time on Dec. 6. Between now and then, while the Pluto-bound probe enjoys three more weeks of electronic slumber, work on Earth is well under ...

Recommended for you

New research challenges existing models of black holes

January 19, 2018

Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), has collaborated on a new study that expands the scientific community's understanding of black holes in our galaxy ...

Neutron-star merger yields new puzzle for astrophysicists

January 18, 2018

The afterglow from the distant neutron-star merger detected last August has continued to brighten - much to the surprise of astrophysicists studying the aftermath of the massive collision that took place about 138 million ...

New technique for finding life on Mars

January 18, 2018

Researchers demonstrate for the first time the potential of existing technology to directly detect and characterize life on Mars and other planets. The study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, used miniaturized scientific ...

7 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

FMA
2 / 5 (7) Dec 07, 2014
Back in 2006, Windows was still on XP version, intel was in less than 1 GHz CPU.

I wonder if any probe is going to launch today and onward, one can consider using Raspberry Pi and Arduino, which are very low power consumption and very powerful tool.
alfie_null
4.3 / 5 (6) Dec 07, 2014
Back in 2006, Windows was still on XP version, intel was in less than 1 GHz CPU.

I wonder if any probe is going to launch today and onward, one can consider using Raspberry Pi and Arduino, which are very low power consumption and very powerful tool.

One conundrum: lower power usually means greater susceptibility to single event upsets, which are caused by energetic cosmic rays passing through the electronics. There are workarounds, but the result is space rated computers are more complex and more expensive.
verkle
Dec 07, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (3) Dec 07, 2014
RTG can't be turned down/off/on to conserve power. Their power was rated for decay during the travel duration.
Skepticus
5 / 5 (4) Dec 07, 2014
All of the instruments aboard New Horizons draw power from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which provides less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs, scientists said.

Cheezus, That's circumnavigate total space. Would be much simpler to say "The RTG provides just under 200W of (electrical? total?) power."
And, by the way, light bulbs don't PROVIDE power.

big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (2) Dec 07, 2014
Skepticus don't you know anything about deep space :-))
The RTG runs a pair of 100 Watt light bulbs, which shine directly onto solar panels. Come on man, get with it!!!!! PMSL.
dtxx
5 / 5 (2) Dec 07, 2014
Back in 2006, Windows was still on XP version, intel was in less than 1 GHz CPU.

I wonder if any probe is going to launch today and onward, one can consider using Raspberry Pi and Arduino, which are very low power consumption and very powerful tool.


Are you doing this on purpose? The first 1ghz desktop cpu launched in early 2000, with offerings from Intel and AMD just days apart. Maybe a 1ghz processor finally reached your country by 2006.

Also, I'm not aware that radioshack carries radiation hardened arduino components. Or why you would launch a spacecraft with budget hobbyist parts.

Other than that, I liked your post.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.