It may be routine procedure, having been performed many times before, but it is symbolically one giant leap for mankind, particularly space exploration. Waking up to Russell Watson’s “Where My Heart Will Take Me”, long associated with space exploration and even Star Trek, NASA‘s New Horizons spacecraft became fully activated in preparation for its meetup with the smallest and farthest “former” member of our solar system, Pluto. It marks the near culmination of a journey that has so far lasted nearly nine years and three billion miles, the farthest any space mission has traveled to reach its target.
It actually won’t be until January 15, 2015 before it starts observing Pluto and it won’t be until July 14 before it reaches its closest position to the (former) planet. Of course, between then and now, the NASA team will do a lot of systems check to make sure that the spacecraft is in tip top shape to begin its scientific mission. Hibernation, a state where most of the New Horizons’ systems are underpowered, is used to reduce the wear and tear on its equipment. That said, the New Horizons onboard flight computer still phoned home weekly for signs of life.
The spacecraft is equipped with a seven-instrument science set, which includes advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space-dust detector. But even before it starts its in-depth study of Pluto, scientists are expecting that by mid-May, it will deliver images of the dwarf planet never before seen in proximity and quality, even by the likes of the Hubble telescope.
New Horizons’ mission doesn’t end with Pluto, however. After it wraps up its planetary exploration, the spacecraft will be tasked with ambassadorial duties, carrying a message from Earth for any intelligent lifeform in space that it may encounter, or that may encounter it. This “One Earth” message will be crowdsourced from Earthlings. Considering there is little memory space onboard the space craft, the message will only be uploaded once New Horizons has transmitted its final scientific payload back to Earth.