New Horizons Pluto Probe Awakens From Its Six-Month Slumber, Gets Ready For Historic Flyby Of Ultima Thule

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and Pluto.
muratart / Shutterstock

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, the intrepid space probe that led humanity on our first exploration of Pluto, has woken up from its robotic slumber and is ready to take on its next pioneering mission, reports Science News.

Launched in 2006, the New Horizons probe has been spending the last half a year or so in electronic hibernation, resting up before it sets course toward its next flyby target.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, the New Horizons spacecraft is off to explore a distant icy world called Ultima Thule, a possible binary asteroid lying 3.8 billion miles from Earth, in the Kuiper Belt. This is the farthest away in deep space that any man-made probe has ever been before.

New Horizons has been slowly making its way toward Ultima Thule ever since the spacecraft’s historic flyby of Pluto and its enigmatic moon Charon on July 14, 2015, which — as reported by the Inquisitr — has recently revealed nearly 50 miles of methane dunes on the surface of the dwarf planet.

To save on resources, the spacecraft went into a series of sleep modes, the last one of which started on December 22, 2017, notes Geek Wire.

According to Alan Stern, principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, hibernation procedures are a common thing among spacecraft operations.

“It saves wear and tear on the system, and it frees up personnel to do flyby planning.”

But the piano-sized probe finally awoke from hibernation on Monday night, beaming back radio signals to let us know it’s ready for business. The news reached flight controllers on June 5 at 2:12 a.m. EDT, CBS News reports.

“IT’S HAPPENING! IT’S HAPPENING!” Stern tweeted in the early morning on Tuesday. “Flyby preparations for Ultima Thule begin shortly!”

“Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August,” Stern said in a statement.

Alice Bowman, manager of operations for the New Horizons mission, noted that the entire wakeup procedure went like clockwork.

“It was very nice to have everything run so smoothly. We didn’t have to do any reboots, any reconfigurations of the ground systems or anything like that. It went very smooth, and we were very happy.”

Next up for the New Horizons spacecraft is the highly anticipated flyby of Ultima Thule, slated for New Year’s Day in 2019. The space probe is currently 162 million miles from its next flyby target, speeding toward this peculiar asteroid at about 31,600 mph, or 760,200 miles a day.

Not much is known about Ultima Thule, except that it’s definitely not a planet. As reported by the Inquisitr, this remote object in the outer reaches of our solar system has a bizarre dual structure and could even end up being two celestial bodies orbiting each other.

Initially designated MU69, this unusual and small frozen world will become the most distant world ever explored by humankind.

Geek Wire notes that Ultima Thule may have settled around its present orbit more than 4 billion years ago. This means that Ultima Thule could be “the most primitive body ever studied by any spacecraft,” points out a recent report published by the New Horizons team in Space Science Reviews.

As Bowman explains, the much-awaited flyby at the very beginning of 2019 will take the New Horizons spacecraft as close as 2,100 miles (or 3,500 kilometers) from the surface of Ultima Thule.

“If we see something on approach that causes us pause and we want to move farther away, we have an alternate set of commands that will take us to about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) distance,” said Bowman, who is based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

After the New Horizons probe passes Ultima Thule and beams back all the mission data, the spacecraft will move even farther into interstellar space, leaving the solar system for good.