Scientists are increasingly enthusiastic about the next 2 months that will mark a milestone in space exploration. The spacecraft that has been sent on the mission is called New Horizons and has departed from Earth nearly 9 years ago. Since then, it has covered approximately 2.9 billion miles and now it is very close to having reached its final destination. Due to the very long trip and to conserve energy, the spacecraft has spent more than half of its way to Pluto in hibernation intermittently, alternating between online and offline for months. The only system that would remain awake was the tracking one so scientists back on Earth were able to make sure it was still on course and alive.
The most recent period of hibernation is close to an end however as New Horizons is scheduled to be woken up again on December the 6th at 12 PM PST, and respond back within an hour and a half. Scientists have calculated that the signal will however take about 4 hours to be received back on Earth due to the very long distance. After the connection has been re-established, there are 6 weeks’ worth of check-ups and preparations scheduled to ensure the spacecraft’s safety on its approach to the frozen dwarf.
The road to the farthest away place in our solar system has been dangerous and quite the adventure. Starting with its impressive launch off of Earth’s surface that was made at the fastest speed ever recorded until then and ending with its passing by Jupiter, whose gravitational field was used to slingshot New Horizon further towards the edge of the solar system. But the risks are far from over; very little is known about the space in the Kuiper belt. Studies have shown an agglomeration of speeding dust particles that could put the spacecraft’s life in peril, travelling at nearly 30,000 miles an hour. Furthermore, taking in consideration Pluto’s 248-year long orbit around the sun, approaching the dwarf planet with a spacecraft requires perfect calculation. Scientists say that a 7 minute difference in calculations could mean New Horizon’s 9 year long trip was for nothing, and that the only data it would send back would be black space.
Right now the spacecraft is still 175 million miles away from Pluto so more data on the planet is not expected until January 2015. If things go according to plan, researchers will be starting to get information on the geology of Pluto by June.