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New Horizons Is Awake And Knocking On Pluto’s Door

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New Horizons and Pluto

New Horizons and Pluto (artist rendering)

Let’s see if NASA can keep the positive momentum going. After last week’s successful test flight of the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s next project involves the far reaches of the solar system: the demoted dwarf planet Pluto.

The New Horizons spacecraft has been in a half-awake state for most of its 8-year trip, and it’s been fully hibernating since August 29. Yesterday, it woke itself up at 3:00 pm EST (spacecraft like to sleep in, apparently), and sent a signal back to Earth indicating that it was up, getting dressed, and fixing a balanced breakfast. That signal took four and a half hours to reach Earth, even though it moved at the speed of light. New Horizons is now nearly 3 billion miles away from Earth, and closing in on Pluto as it travels nearly a million miles a day.

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Are You There, Aliens? New Horizons Has A Message For You

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new_horizonsIf you happened to encounter some aliens, what would you say (presuming they can translate/understand your human language)? Maybe the first thing would be, “Please don’t kill me,” but after a while you’d probably have a lot of questions about their civilization and technology, and what took them so long to make contact with humans. NASA has been asking itself the same question, especially as its New Horizons spacecraft prepares to finish studying Pluto next summer and head deeper into space. When it embarks on that journey, it will take with it a message for whomever or whatever it may encounter.

The message will stream to the craft next year, after it wraps up its Pluto mission. The message isn’t exactly something you could stick into a bottle — it’s really a digital record of sounds and images that would give its recipient an indication of what life on planet Earth is like. The information will resemble the Golden Record carried by the Voyager probes which were launched in 1977, and which are currently traveling through interstellar space. Both spacecraft carry messages on 12-inch, gold-plated copper disks. The contents were selected carefully by a committee that included Carl Sagan, and they represent a cultural cross-section of life on Earth: images, sounds, 55 greetings in different languages, and music.

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NASA’s Only A Year Away From Pluto

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New HorizonsPluto may not be a full-fledged planet anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in checking it out, even if it is quite a hike. It’s about 3 billion miles, one way, if you were wondering. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set off for the dwarf planet back in 2006, and now that it’s 2014 we can finally say that next year, we’ll have our first close-up glimpse of the gatekeeper to our Solar System.

Pluto and CharonLast year, New Horizons’ telescopic camera LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) got its first image of Charon, Pluton’s largest moon. You can see it just to the upper left of Pluto, which is the bright spot in the middle. But don’t worry, the images will get better as the craft gets closer. When this was taken, New Horizons was still 550 million miles away. In the mean time check out the first images of Charon from 1978 when it was first discovered.