Dec 09, 2014 01:22 PM EST
It was a message from 2.9 billion miles away, yet NASA researchers heard it loud and clear. Early this Saturday, Dec. 6, researchers from NASA confirmed that the New Horizons Orbiter spacecraft had awakened from its hibernation state, and was ready begin the climax of its nine-year trip to Pluto.
"It's ALIVE! The @NASANewHorizons mission control just received full confirmation at 9:53 ET! Pluto get ready!" spokespersons from NASA posted on the organization's official Twitter Saturday afternoon.
First signals received from the spacecraft arrived at mission's control center at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory via a giant radio antenna across the Earth in Australia. Though the transmission was short, researchers confirmed that the orbiter seems fully functional, is currently in standby, and has fully awakened, turning on all of its processors for the short journey ahead.
Though received officially just before 9:30 ET, the transmission took nearly four and a half hours to reach the Earth from the piano-sized space probe. And in spite of travelling at the speed of light, the radio signals had to backtrack the vast distances the spacecraft has traversed in its nine-year mission.
"This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system and the beginning of the mission's primary objective: the exploration of Pluto and its many moons in 2015" principal investigator for the $728 million New Horizons mission, Alan Stern says.
Since its launch in 2006, New Horizons has spent roughly two-thirds of its flight time in hibernation to save on operational costs and wear-and-tear. But in spite of being occasionally roused awake for a simple diagnostic checkup by NASA researcher, such as the photo ops captured in its 2007 flyby of Jupiter, New Horizons is officially ready for business and awake for its arrival mission.
The first of its kind, New Horizons will capture images of Pluto and its five known moons once it arrives, however, researchers expect a few surprises as well since no other past orbiter has ventured that far out in space. And even after its encounter, due to the vast distances between it and Earth, and because of the sheer volume of data expected to arise from the mission, New Horizons is expected to transmit data for more than a year after its encounter.
But NASA researchers are just limiting New Horizons to the limits of our planetary system. After Pluto, the spacecraft is expected to move past the former planet onto another icy object in the outlying Kuiper Belt in late 2018 or 2019.
"New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we've never seen, in a place we've never been before" project scientist Hal Weaver says. "For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; 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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