Pluto probe wakes up from hibernation.
About 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) away, close to the outer edges of our solar system, a quiet space probe has just began whirring again.
NASA’s New Horizons space probe was launched back in 2006 and has traversed the solar system since then, most recently passing by Pluto in 2015 to give us the most detailed images of the dwarf planet we’ve ever seen. It spent much of its time in a “hibernation” mode after that, where it runs on autopilot and most functions are shut down, only “awakening” when NASA needs to make adjustments before its next mission.
As of June 4, 2018, that hibernation period is over, and New Horizons has sent back a message to NASA confirming it’s properly up and running again. From this point on, New Horizons can continue beyond Pluto toward its new target: a relatively small object in the Kuiper Belt called MU69, although it’s since been given the more memorable nickname of “Ultima Thule.”
Even though Pluto and Ultima Thule are both inside the Kuiper Belt (a small belt full of asteroids and dwarf planets beyond Neptune), New Horizons isn’t expected to flyby Ultima Thule until January 1, 2019. Ultima Thule is about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) farther than Pluto, and the probe is cruising at a smooth 760,200 miles (1,223,420 kilometers) per day. As of today, the probe still has 162 million miles (262 million kilometers) to go.
Alan Stern, the probe’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said the following in an official statement:
“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.”
There’s a lot to learn about Ultima Thule, because we don’t really know a lot just yet beyond that it’s a fascinating hunk of rock. The name comes from European folklore, and roughly translates to “beyond the borders of the known world”.
Which makes it a perfect destination for New Horizons.