And the journey continues. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has just woken up from a deep slumber, as it heads towards the most distant rendezvous in the Solar System ever attempted.
The spacecraft was commanded to come out of hibernation today, June 5, as it heads towards its next target. The spacecraft famously flew past Pluto in July 2015, returning our first ever views of the dwarf planet, and is now on its way to a distant object called MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule.
“We’re back to flying the spacecraft,” Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the mission, told IFLScience. “The team is working every day from here out to make the flyby successful.”
Ultima Thule orbits the Sun about 1.5 billion kilometers (1 billion miles) further than Pluto, at a distance of 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from Earth. New Horizons is scheduled to fly past the object on January 1, 2019, at a distance of just 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) from its surface.
This object, which may actually be a double object, is thought to be a remnant of the early Solar System. It measures only about 30 kilometers (20 miles) across, compared to Pluto’s width of 2,380 kilometers (1,480 miles). It takes about 295 years to orbit the Sun, and seems to be slightly red.
Other than that, we don’t know much about it. But after visiting Pluto, the New Horizons team saw a fantastic opportunity to explore an object like this in the outer Solar System. After looking for a target, MU69 was selected as the next destination in August 2015.
As it’s so far away, though, New Horizons has been in hibernation for most of its journey there. Now that we’re just six months from the flyby, New Horizons will be kept awake to prepare it for the important event.
In August, it will begin taking observational images of the object from afar to make sure it’s on the right track. In September, the team will look for any debris around the object that could complicate the flyby. And from October onwards, the quality of images will surpass those possible by Hubble, which are little more than a dot.
We’ll finally know what shape Ultima Thule is after Christmas Day this year. And then at 12.33am EST on January 1, 2019, just after the eastern US rings in the New Year, New Horizons will make its closest approach. The images from this should show objects as small as a house.
It is going to be incredibly exciting. And now New Horizons has woken up as planned, it’s all systems go for one of the most daring missions ever attempted.