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Encounter Planning Accelerates

Waking Up New Horizons for Summer 2013!

Before I close this column out, I also want to update you on mission status and other project news.

Currently, New Horizons itself is about 2.6 billion miles from the Sun, and only about 600 million miles from Pluto. Arrival at Pluto is just under 700 days away – still a long time, but much less than the nearly 2,700 days we’ve been traveling since launch!

New Horizons is healthy and on course, with all systems and science sensors working. On May 21, we’ll wake the spacecraft from its most recent, 100-plus day hibernation to begin a busy annual checkout, which will include thorough checks of all backup systems, instrument payload calibrations, and an update of our fault protection software with the next-to-last planned set of enhancements before we start the Pluto encounter in January 2015 – just over 19 months from now.

This summer’s wakeup will also include our most comprehensive on-the-spacecraft close-encounter rehearsal. For nine days, beginning July 5, New Horizons will execute all the activities of its final week on approach to Pluto, closest approach day, and then some of the post-encounter timeline as well. This rehearsal follows up on our successful encounter-day practice from last summer.

After the nine-day rehearsal, we’ll downlink a large amount of data through NASA’s Deep Space Network  to evaluate how the rehearsal went, collect more cruise science data, conduct more spacecraft navigation tracking, and then put New Horizons back into hibernation on August 21 for another 4½ months, while the team works on SHBOT encounter sequencing.

Also this summer, we’ll be close enough to resolve Pluto from its large moon Charon using our long-focal length telescopic imager called LORRI. The first week of July is also the 35th anniversary of Charon’s discovery and – entirely by coincidence – we’ll be taking our first images of Charon at the same time of year that the moon was discovered, back in 1978!

One thing we won’t be doing this summer is a course correction. As in 2011 and 2012, our spacecraft navigation team has determined from tracking data that we’re on course and that there is no need to spend any fuel this way – a good thing!

Our mission team can feel the increased pace of activity as we draw closer and closer to 2015, and many of us are working much longer hours on this project than we did in early- and mid-cruise. To prepare for encounter operations to start in January 2015, we’ll add new staff to our science and operations teams. In fact, we’ve already made one very important addition by bringing in a deputy project manager, Peter Bedini, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Peter was most recently the project manager for APL’s MESSENGER Mercury orbiter. New Horizons is privileged to have someone as talented and experienced as Peter on our team. So, welcome Peter to a spacecraft and encounter target that are a lot cooler than Mercury – in fact, about 600 degrees Celsius cooler.

As I close this update, I’ll just say thanks to all of you for following our journey across the deep ocean of space, to a new planet, and a truly new frontier. I’ll plan another update as we complete this summer’s intensive mission operations. In the meantime, be on the lookout for a news notes on our website related to this summer’s activities.

Until I write again, I hope you’ll keep on exploring – just as we do!

–Alan Stern

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