Spaceflight Insider

New Horizons exits hibernation to prepare for KBO flyby

Flight controllers Graeme Keleher and Anisha Hosadurga, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, monitor New Horizons shortly after confirming the NASA spacecraft had exited hibernation on June 5, 2018. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Mike Buckley

NASA’s New Horizons probe has been awakened from nearly six months in hibernation to enable the mission team to start preparations for its flyby of Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) Ultima Thule (also known as 2014 MU69) in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2019.

At 2:12 AM EDT on Tuesday, June 5, mission headquarters at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) received radio signals sent from the spacecraft via NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) confirming it carried out the appropriate computer commands to exit hibernation mode, which it had been in since December 21, 2017.

Now close to 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion km) from Earth, the spacecraft is in good health, and all its systems are back online, according to Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of JHUAPL.

Traveling at the universal speed of light, radio signals take five hours and 40 minutes each way from Earth to the spacecraft and back.

Immediate tasks for the mission team involve collection of the spacecraft’s navigation tracking data via DSN. Over the next two months, computer commands preparing for the flyby are scheduled to be uploaded to the probe. Science instruments and their subsystems are going to be tested, and Kuiper Belt data collected by the spacecraft is set to be retrieved and analyzed.

In late August, New HorizonsLong Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is scheduled to make its first observations of the KBO, which mission scientists plan on using to refine New Horizons‘ trajectory toward its second target.

Currently, the spacecraft is about 162 million miles (262 million km) from Ultima Thule and traveling toward it at a speed of 760,200 miles (1,223,420 km) per day.

“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,” reported mission Principal  Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

Since its historic July 2015 Pluto flyby, the probe has conducting distant studies of other Kuiper Belt Objects, including some dwarf planets, and of the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space over which the Sun’s influence extends.

Ultima Thule is located approximately one billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto. Readers can track New Horizons‘ position as it heads toward its target via the mission’s “Where is New Horizons?” web page.

The probe will now remain awake until late 2020, when all data from the Ultima Thule flyby as well as data from other Kuiper Belt science observations, is successfully transmitted back to Earth.

Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flying past Ultima Thule, a Kuiper Belt Object officially named 2104 MU69. Chosen by the mission team with public input, the nickname Ultima Thule is a Norse phrase, pronounced “thoo-lee.” Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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