After a near decade-long journey, NASA’s New Horizons probe has woken from hibernation for the last time as it prepares for its close encounter with Pluto next year.
Mission controllers received the first signal that New Horizons had woken from hibernation at 9:30 p.m. EST on Saturday, with full confirmation coming in at 9:53 p.m. EST. This is the last time the spacecraft will wake from hibernation as it approaches its primary target.
“This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system, and the beginning of the mission’s primary objective: the exploration of Pluto and its many moons in 2015,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.
Launched on January 19, 2006, NASA’s New Horizons mission will perform a flyby of the Pluto and its moons, and is expected to go on to explore Kuiper Belt objects. When it arrives on July 14, 2015, it will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and will provide the first close-up images of the dwarf planet.
While still 6 months away from its close encounter with the dwarf planet, the New Horizons probe will begin making observations of Pluto starting on Jan. 15. According to NASA, by mid-May the spacecraft will be able to capture views of Pluto and its moons better than what Hubble Space Telescope has been able to provide.
Hubble has captured the most detailed images of Pluto to date, providing enough resolution to discern surface changes on the dwarf planet. However, the dwarf planet is so distant from Earth that even photos captured by Hubble appear too blurry to detect surface features like craters or mountains.
After studying Pluto and its moons, the New Horizons team hopes to explore even more distant Kuiper Belt objects as part of an extended mission. Using the Hubble Space Telescope the team was able to identify three new targets for the space probe, at least one of which is reachable by New Horizons.
The Kuiper Belt is a region of space beyond the orbit of the planets composed mostly of icy objects, which may offer clues to the conditions that existed during the formative years solar system. Pluto is the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt. The highly anticipated arrival of the New Horizons probe at the Pluto system presents an unprecedented opportunity to explore this uncharted region of the solar system.
“Unlike asteroids, KBOs have not been heated by the sun and are thought to represent a pristine, well preserved deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago,” NASA said in a statement. [Read more: NASA Spots New Targets For New Horizons Pluto Mission]
The New Horizons probe, which was launched on a $700 million mission, has spent much of its journey in hibernation, periodically being woken up to perform science operations or to calibrate instruments. According to NASA, “not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it also lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.”