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Wake-up Call: Mission to Pluto in Good Health

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has come out of hibernation mode to carry out system checks, as well as receive a new flight software upload and churn out science data downloads.

The mission operations team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland “woke” New Horizons after 6 months of electronic slumber on Jan. 6.

Earth broadcasted radio signals need nearly 3 hours and 40 minutes to reach the spacecraft – which is about 2.4 billion miles (3.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune.

The New Horizons has spent about 80 percent of the past five years in hibernation, a low-power mode that reduces operation costs, frees up Deep Space Network tracking resources for other missions and lessens wear and tear on spacecraft electronics.

The team wakes New Horizons two or three times a year to check systems and run tests, but after May 2014 the spacecraft will remain “on” without hibernating through the 2015 Pluto encounter.

Pluto closest encounter operations begin some 820 days from this posting!

The nuclear-powered probe was launched on January 19, 2006 – heading for a July 2015 Pluto-Charon (a moon of Pluto) encounter and beyond…into the 2016-2020 time frame.

By Leonard David

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