5 Fun Facts About the New Horizons Spacecraft

This past Saturday, December 6th, the New Horizons spacecraft woke up from hibernation for the last time before its Pluto flyby in July 2015. There are scientists and engineers who have worked on this impressive project for more than 15 years, and we are finally getting to the most exciting part. In preparation for the flyby, here are five fun facts about the New Horizons spacecraft!

(1) New Horizon's Has Traveled for Years and Billions of Miles

You’ve got to remember that it takes 9.5 years to even get to where we want to take the mission. “So we need a highly reliable system. So, we have built into the electronics nearly two of everything. We are redundant
— Glen Fountain, New Horizons Project Manager

New Horizons has traveled for nearly 9 years and 3 BILLION miles (5 BILLION kilometers), the farthest any space has ever traveled to reach its primary target. It takes 4.5 hours for a one-way message to get to the spacecraft.

(2) New Horizons "Hibernates" to Protect Itself

Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before. Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.
— Glen Fountain, New Horizons Project Manager

New Horizons came out of hibernation December 6th, 2014.  It’s spent about two-thirds of its life in hibernation, which is a strategy used to reduce the wear and tear on the spacecraft’s components and reduce the risk of system failures.

(3) New Horizons' Primary Target, Pluto, Has Gone Through Some Classification Changes

When New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006, Pluto was still defined as a "regular" planet.  It was demoted to dwarf planet status in September of 2006. However, this is a hot topic for many. For example, many would say that a dwarf planet is still considered a planet.  After all, it has the word "planet" in its name. Many would also argue that our concept of a “planet” is too constricted. They might not only consider Pluto a planet, but also many other planetary bodies (with atmospheres and weather) that we currently consider “moons.” Classification of planetary bodies is a difficult business. Sending a spacecraft to Pluto is worthwhile regardless of Pluto's classification.

(4) New Horizons Uses Nuclear Power

New Horizons is powered by RTG nuclear power (radioisotope thermal generator). Because the spacecraft is so far away from the sun, the designers needed a power solution that didn't rely on solar power.  The RTG on New Horizons converts heat from naturally decaying plutonium into electricity.

(5) New Horizons Will Reach Pluto This Summer!

New Horizon’s closest approach of Pluto will occur this coming summer on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft will take detailed measurements and images of Pluto as well as Pluto’s moons. It is currently 162 million miles from Pluto. After Pluto, if it has enough fuel, it plans to check out other objects in the Kuiper Belt. 

*All quotes from Space.com


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