Space probe developed at Johns Hopkins awakens for Pluto mission - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Dec. 10, 2014 8:31 am

Space probe developed at Johns Hopkins awakens for Pluto mission

Developed by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (in partnership with NASA), the probe will explore distant worlds at the edge of the Solar System.

A rendering of the New Horizons probe on Pluto's interstellar doorstep.

(Image courtesy of NASA)

The New Horizons probe is awake, alert and ready to give humans the closest view of Pluto they’ve ever had.

Located about 3 billion miles from Earth, the probe came out of hibernation mode Saturday night, according to the team that helped develop the unmanned spacecraft for NASA at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Now, it will prepare for its primary task: the first extensive survey of the dwarf planet, and the still-mysterious region beyond.

The probe signalled that it was awake by sending data to NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia. Even at light speed, the signal took four hours and 26 minutes to reach Earth. Afterward, scientists at the Laurel-based lab were also beaming. 

In addition to the dwarf planet itself, the probe will also take an up-close look at Pluto’s five moons.

“Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at JHU’s Applied Physics Lab. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.” 

The probe was in hibernation mode for about two-thirds of its nine-year journey toward the edge of the Solar System. When New Horizons launched in January 2006, Pluto was still an illustrious member of the Solar System’s nine planets. That summer, astronomers sparked outrage when they downgraded it to a dwarf planet.

Eight years later, some scientists are calling for Pluto to be allowed back into the planet club. Photos and data sent by New Horizons will only help keep it in the spotlight. The measurements, photos and other observations are set to start on January 15, 2015, and the probe’s closest approach to Pluto will come in July.

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"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."
JHU scientist Hal Weaver

To record data, the probe is carrying imaging devices and sensors including two color cameras, as well as infrared, ultraviolet and particle spectrometers. There’s also a space-dust detector aboard.

In addition to the dwarf planet itself, the probe will also take an up-close look at Pluto’s five moons. Once it finishes in that system, it will move on to the rest of the Asteroid-belt-like region of icy bodies at the edge of the Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto’s downgrade from planetary status erupted after it was determined to be a member of the Kuiper Belt, rather than its own planet. They may still refer to it as “odd” and “little,” but the Applied Physics Lab team sees Pluto’s value as an entry point to an area of the Solar System that humans have yet to explore.

“For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts,” said JHU scientist Hal Weaver. “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.”

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