Back in January 2006, before Pluto was demoted from a planet status to that of just a dwarf, NASA’s New Horizons space probe was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop an Atlas V rocket heading toward the massive chunk of ice and rock. Now, coming up on Dec. 6, the spacecraft is set to awake from the last of its 18 hibernation periods to get ready for its initial approach towards the most massive object in the Kuiper Belt, according to the U.S. space agency.
This mission is the first to travel outside Neptune’s orbit into the Kuiper Belt. Currently, New Horizons is about 2.9 million miles from Earth. By July 14, the space probe will come as close as 6,200 miles from Pluto’s surface.
“New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space—nearly 3 billion miles from home—but its rest is nearly over,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., in a statement. “It’s time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history.”
The Kuiper Belt lies in a distant region of the solar system beyond the planets. It is 20 times as wide and 200 times as massive as the asteroid belt and is made up mostly of small rocky bodies left over from the birth of the solar system.
“This is the first look at this new zone of rocky, icy planets,” said Michael Buckley, a public information officer for APL in a report by ABC News. “This is what New Horizons is supposed to do.”
Over the past nine years, New Horizons has gone into hibernation as often as possible for various amounts of time to help conserve power. It transmits a beep once weekly to let mission operators know it is still functioning.
For the next six weeks, scientists will be checking the space probe’s functions, including its memory and navigation instruments. The observation phase will begin in January when New Horizons will be sending back images and taking measurements of Pluto and its moons as well as observing how the dwarf planet’s atmosphere interacts with the sun.
“This is really quite an epic journey,” said New Horizons lead investigator Alan Stern in remarks to Spaceflight Now. “Three billion miles across the entirety of our planetary system, from the inner planets to the middle solar system to the third zone—the Kuiper Belt—and for the first time.”
Stern added: “No voyage like this has been conducted since the epic days of Voyager, and nothing like it is planned again.”