The New Horizons spacecraft has woken up 6 billion kilometres from Earth and is closing in on Ultima Thule

Image: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

  • The New Horizons probe has woken up 6 billion kilometres from Earth after a 165-day sleep.
  • It’s on course for 2019 New Year’s Day rendezvous with Ultima Thule, a giant peanut-shaped rock in the Kuiper Belt.
  • The probe is moving at more than 1 million kilometres a day.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just woke up, 6.1 billion kilometres away from home.

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland were reportedly “jubilant” to recieve the radio transmission confirming that New Horizons had successfully made it through a 165-day hibernation period.

Their jubilation is justified. The $US700 million probe travels 1.1 million kilometres a day and has been clipping along without missing a beat since 2006.

Even after 12 years of travelling at that speed, the wake-up call took just 5 hours and 40 minutes to reach the Earth, which means all is very well with New Horizons as it keeps on breaking records.

On New Year’s Day, all the signs point to it becoming the probe that makes the most distant planetary encounter in human history. It’s target: Ultima Thule, about 260 million kilometres away.

“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,” Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission, said after the wake-up call.

Ultima Thule is in the Kuiper Belt, a collection of more than 1000 known objects – and potentially up to 100,000 objects – orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. The Kuiper Belt objects are the blue dots below:

The Kuiper Belt (blue). By WilyD/Wikimedia Commons

New Horizons’ clearest pics were the extraordinary images it sent back of Pluto as it whizzed past, such as this sunset over the mountains:

Picture: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

But it has woken up every now and then since to send back the odd snap. This one taken in February is part of a series of landmark images taken at the greatest distance from Earth:

Picture: NASA

So why Ultima Thule? For starters, as cool as it sounds, “Ultima Thule” is just a nickname the object got after a naming competition back in March.

Thule is an ancient Greek term for the place furthest north, and the Ultima part is a medieval reference to beyond the borders of the known world.

Once New Horizons has proper photos taken and data collected on it, Ultima Thule will get an official name from the International Astronomical Union.

It was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope on June 26, 2014, which was specifically searching for a Kuiper Belt object for New Horizons to aim for after Pluto. It’s irregularly shaped, kind of like a peanut, with two lobes about 20km and 18km in diameter:

By Daniel Bamberger/NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker/ESA

It orbits the Sun every 295 years and in a bit of a boon for the New Horizons team, it was discovered last year to have its pole pointed towards Earth most of the time, which means the probe will have an easier time getting a better look at it.

But we’ll start seeing it well before New Year’s Day, 2019. The New Horizons team is expecting images to start arriving from August 21, but they’re mainly to see if there are any obstacles the probe needs to manouevre around.

If it makes it, New Horizons will get three times closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto – 3,500km – when it will begin mapping the surface and surrounds.

Specifically, it will be looking for traces of ammonia, carbon monoxide, methane and water on the surface.

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