NASA New Horizons spacecraft will be switched from hibernation to active mode starting on Saturday, December 6, as it is nearing Pluto. Following the recent success of the Orion spacecraft, NASA is set to work on New Horizons as the spacecraft commences working on its actual mission of covering the planet that is billions of kilometers away from the sun. The world expects to see more of the Kuiper Belt, Pluto and the icy regions at the Solar System’s edge. Pluto is classified by the International Astronomical Union as a dwarf planet.
NASA New Horizons left Earth for Pluto on January 2006, to study the planet’s moons and the objects in the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft is expected to arrive to its destination in July. Along the way, it has been put in hibernation mode almost all the time; meaning, most of its parts were unpowered, to save energy and costs, as well as keep its electronics from wearing and tearing.
The programmed waking up time of NASA New Horizons on December 6 at 3pm EST is a month ahead of the spacecraft’s initial approach to Pluto. It will message Earth that it is already in active mode and the message will take about four hours to reach Earth, despite the light speed travel. According to Alice Bowman, manager for the spacecraft’s mission operations, the satellite is quietly and healthily cruising in deep space, almost 3 billion miles away from Earth.
Bowman said, now, NASA New Horizons’ long sleeping mode is over and it’s time to wake up and be active from December 6 to commence its Pluto work and make history. How NASA New Horizons will bring significant data and images to Earth depends on the sophistication of its instruments. Being the smallest space probe sent out to the solar system, engineers took the pain of selecting miniature components and instrument capabilities to fit on a relatively small payload. It has seven instruments for remote sensing and as situ instruments. The former ones are used to check on things from afar via different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, while the latter measure things from the spacecraft’s position, like dust, ions and magnetic fields.
There are a number of remote sensing instruments that are on board. Alice, an ultraviolet spectrometer, is used primarily to study Pluto’s atmosphere. It can see wavelengths from 46.5 to 188 nanometers in its spatial 5 milliradians resolutions per pixel. LORRI, is a camera that is sensitive to 350 to 850 nanometers wavelengths with five microradians per pixel high-resolution. It is for optical navigation that is long-ranged, and for detailed imaging as well. It produces better images in monochrome, but they can be colorized with MVIC data of the imager, Ralph.
Ralph is a multi-spectral imager which has five channels in almost-infrared and visible wavelengths between 400 to 975 nanometers and 20 microradians per pixel spatial resolution. Consisting of two sub-instruments LEISA and MVIC, it has color imaging and wide field view capabilities. LEISA is a spectrometer for infrared imaging that spans between 1.25 and 2.5 microns to measure surface temperature and composition. There is also REX, an instrument that can send radio signals to Earth’s giant dishes through the atmosphere.
On the other hand, NASA New Horizons’ in-situ instruments are the Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI), which has 12 channels that span 1 to 1000 keV higher energies to check on pickup ions from the escaping atmosphere of Pluto; Solar Wind at Pluto, the analyzer of solar wind, which is sensitive to particles that are of lower-energy (25 eV – 7.5 keV); and Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter which gauges distribution of size and particle density with greater-than-picogram masses. This instrument has been active throughout New Horizons’ long journey.
NASA New Horizons will be observing the Pluto system starting next month. On July 14, 2015, it will be nearest to Pluto’s surface, at 6200 miles away. As Earth waits for New Horizons’ exciting and ambitious mission, unprecedented information and images are expected to arrive.
NASA New Horizons will be active from December 6 to start with its actual works about Pluto. It will operate in deep-space communications with its dish, though big when compared to its size, is not, when it is 4 billion kilometers away. Transfer of data is expected to be slow, and may even be impossible when the spacecraft is focusing on certain targets. Scientists expect silence during the two weeks when it will be nearest Pluto, but hope it will be keeping in touch with Earth again, soonest.
By Judith Aparri
Photo courtesy of Colin Campbell – Flicker License