Launched on January 19, 2006, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has spent nearly nine years in space traveling 2.9 billion miles to reach Pluto, a newly reclassified “dwarf planet” once considered the 9th planet from the sun. On December 6th, New Horizons awakened from hibernation, marking the end of 18 such periods of downtime (each ranging from 36 days to 202 days in length) meant to minimize “the wear and tear on spacecraft components and [to]reduce the risk of system failures.”
So, why is this a big deal?
Well, for starters, the best images we have of Pluto are blurry, grainy dots courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope (see image to the right). For the first time ever, New Horizons will beam back a series of high resolution images of the icy, rocky “dwarf planet.” It will also send back troves of new data giving new insights into the atmospheric and geological conditions of Pluto.
“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before. For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them,” says New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver.
With a host of specialized equipment that includes “advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector,” New Horizons will begin collecting data on Pluto and its many moons on January 15th. Unfortunately, we have to wait until May 2015, when New Horizons will begin sending back those high-res images of Pluto.
According to Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo., “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.”
Possible results include the discovery of additional moons orbiting Pluto, a completely new take on Pluto (with the possibility of another reclassification to planet status), and the discovery of other dwarf planets along the edges of our solar system.
(Featured image by Bruce Irving – Flickr FlyingSinger)