WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- It's been nine years since the New Horizons probe left Earth, and now the craft is gearing up for its encounter with Pluto in July -- the first-ever flyby of the icy cold dwarf planet.
Until last month, the New Horizons spacecraft had been in hibernation, sleeping to conserve energy as it careened towards the outer reaches of the solar system. But on December 5, 2014, it woke up, just as engineers had programmed it to do several months earlier.
"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 said late last year. "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."
Today, the probe's Pluto encounter officially begins, as the craft turned on a variety of its scientific instruments. New Horizons' science payload features two spectrometers for imaging infrared and ultraviolet light, two particle spectrometers, one multicolor camera, a high-res telescopic camera and a space-dust detector -- can't forget the space-dust detector.
With the probe's instruments turned on, the craft will begin and observing and taking measurements of Pluto and its five moons.
The spacecraft is now nearly 3 billion miles from planet Earth, and just 134 million miles from Pluto. On July 14, the probe will be just 6,000 miles from the dwarf planet's surface. While the flyby will be brief, as the craft zooms on toward the Kuiper Belt, it will continue to beam back new info about the Pluto system for several weeks.
"From a scientific standpoint, this is going to look a lot like an orbiter [mission]," principal investigator Alan Stern said at last month's American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. "The spacecraft is long gone from Pluto, but new data is raining down every week, and every month, for 16 months."