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Ultima Thule
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s New Horizons probe silhouetted by the sun, with the Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule or 2014 MU69 dominating the scene. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Steve Gribben)

The mission operations team for NASA’s New Horizons probe has awakened the spacecraft from its robotic hibernation, and now it’ll stay awake for its scheduled Jan. 1 flyby of a mysterious object on the solar system’s edge, known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule.

New Horizons has been traveling toward Ultima Thule since its history-making Pluto flyby in 2015. To save on resources, the piano-sized probe has been in hibernation mode since last Dec. 21.

The radio signals confirming New Horizons’ latest wakeup call took more than five and a half hours to flash at the speed of light from the solar system’s frontier to NASA’s Deep Space Network, and onward to mission control at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. The good news finally arrived at 2:12 a.m. ET today (11:12 p.m. PT Monday).

Today’s update quoted mission operations manager Alice Bowman as saying the spacecraft is in good health and operating normally, with all systems coming back online as expected.

This week the mission team will collect navigation tracking data and start the months-long process of programming the probe for the New Year’s Day flyby.

“Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.

Ultima Thule is a billion miles beyond Pluto and 3.8 billion miles from Earth, in a region known as the Kuiper Belt. It’s thought to be an icy object much smaller than Pluto, and preliminary long-range observations suggest it could consist of multiple objects.

New Horizons could come within 2,175 miles of Ultima Thule, which would make it the farthest-flung object ever observed at close range. Moreover, the mission’s scientists say Ultima Thule may well have existed in the vicinity of its current orbit for more than 4 billion years, which would make it “the most primitive body ever studied by any spacecraft.”

The spacecraft is scheduled to stay active until late 2020, in order to transmit all the data from the Ultima Thule flyby and make further science observations. And there’s already talk about yet another follow-up mission deep within the Kuiper Belt.

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