New Horizons Wakes for Historic Kuiper Belt Flyby

One artist’s concept of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, the next flyby target for NASA’s New Horizons mission. This binary concept is based on telescope observations made at Patagonia, Argentina on July 17, 2017 when MU69 passed in front of a star. New Horizons theorize that it could be a single body with a large chunk taken out of it, or two bodies that are close together or even touching. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker)

LAUREL, Md. (JHUAPL PR) — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is back “awake” and being prepared for the farthest planetary encounter in history – a New Year’s Day 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Cruising through the Kuiper Belt more than 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from Earth, New Horizons had been in resource-saving hibernation mode since Dec. 21. Radio signals confirming that New Horizons had executed on-board computer commands to exit hibernation reached mission operations at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, via NASA’s Deep Space Network at 2:12 a.m. EDT on June 5.

Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of APL reported that the spacecraft was in good health and operating normally, with all systems coming back online as expected.

Over the next three days, the mission team will collect navigation tracking data (using signals from the Deep Space Network) and send the first of many commands to New Horizons’ onboard computers to begin preparations for the Ultima flyby; lasting about two months, those flyby preparations include memory updates, Kuiper Belt science data retrieval, and a series of subsystem and science-instrument checkouts. In August, the team will command New Horizons to begin making distant observations of Ultima, images that will help the team refine the spacecraft’s course to fly by the object.

“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 mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

New Horizons made a historic flight past Pluto and its moons on July 14, 2015, returning data that has transformed our view of these intriguing worlds near the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt. Since then, New Horizons has been speeding deeper into this distant region, observing other Kuiper Belt objects and measuring the properties of the heliosphere while heading toward the flyby of Ultima Thule — about a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto – on Jan. 1, 2019.

New Horizons is now approximately 162 million miles (262 million kilometers) – less than twice the distance between Earth and the Sun – from Ultima, speeding 760,200 miles (1,223,420 kilometers closer each day. Follow New Horizons on its voyage at

Flight controllers Graeme Keleher and Anisha Hosadurga, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, monitor New Horizons shortly after confirming the NASA spacecraft had exited hibernation on June 5, 2018. (Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Mike Buckley)

Long-Distance Numbers

On June 5, 2018, New Horizons was nearly 3.8 billion miles (6.1 billion kilometers) from Earth. From there – more than 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun – a radio signal sent from the spacecraft at light speed reached Earth 5 hours and 40 minutes later.

The 165-day hibernation that ended June 4 was the second of two such “rest” periods for the spacecraft before the Ultima Thule flyby. The spacecraft will now remain active until late 2020, after it has transmitted all data from the Ultima encounter back to Earth and completed other Kuiper Belt science observations.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    If New Horizons had A.I. software/hardware, it’s first wake-up message would have been? “It’s fu**ing freezing, out here!! 🙂

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    New Horizons is a great spacecraft design. I’d love to see a extreme outer solar system directorate made where NH spacecrafts are launched on Falcon Heavies at very high speed using Jupiter flybys when available to explore the outer solar system with multiple flybys. It’d be a perfect international project with other nations providing funded scientists and spacecraft instruments and extra nodes to the DSN. I specifically propose Falcon H because of it’s huge hyperbolic excess capability in full throw away mode. It would be the perfect swansong for aged Falcon bk5 near end of life.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is one of my arguments with NASA, too many expensive one off designs. If you come up with a good design build a dozen or two and do some real exploring.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    There’s been some glacial movement in this direction. It’s hard to do that when you have a bunch of institutions who pride themselves as being development shops so they never want to do the same thing twice. The progress on this front has been LockMart’s landing table design, it was proposed as and has been used as a table with a landing system that you put stuff on. Mars Polar Crasher, Phoneix, and InSight all used the same table and landing system. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing. I think it’s a darn shame we have not been sending Voyager frames all over the Solar system and on orbiting missions. As I write this, I’m operating a telescope that’s been operational since 1921 and another one from 1997, in two weeks one from 1969. We’d need to restructure spacecraft houses to operate like the Astronomical community where you don’t throw away a useful system, you hand it down to jr research teams that don’t have the money for a full up new system. We could have had a Voyager shop who specialize in building and slowly modifying Voyager chassis with new instrumentations and various upper stages of various capabilities to match the options of flyby or orbiter, solar or nuclear. That big radio dish and instrument scan platform is an excellent general purpose platform. New Horizons has performed amazingly well with it’s long untended cruse capabilities and it’s ability to operate in extreme deep space. Someone is going to make money doing this, and that day is probably not that far off.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Interestingly enough it started out that way. There were not only 9 Rangers, but the Ranger design served as the core of the designs for the Surveyors and Mariners that followed. Then NASA got into flagship missions and one off designs like we have today.

    With commercial satellites it is of course different and most comsats are built in production series with just customer required adjustments in their design.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yes, it started out right because it had the right balance of flowing enough money to do the job, but not so much that that they (JPL, Ames, etc) had to economize. For 50 odd years now one of the major malfunctions of American space policy is to either step on the gas, or slam on the brakes. The functional programs when you look at them have a steady throttled budget that looks pretty sane compared to the flagship programs. Within my group of peers I always counter argue against the successful flagship missions. I think a throttled lower key evolution would have gotten similar results at only a slightly slower pace and in the case where things go wrong (Galileo’s antenna for example) the steady slower approach can gain more results faster. But human enterprises are governed by gambling addicts who only see the huge payoff and turn their back on the mundane 2.5% growth factor.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    You just have to address the power issue for probes operating beyond Jupiter’s orbit before thinking of large number of outer system space probes. The bottleneck for outer system space probes currently is the paucity of the Pu-238 stockpile. Maybe when the Kilopower fission mini-reactors come online, the power issue get resolved.

    By the way you could put a Centaur stage on top of of the Falcon Heavy stack in a RUAG PLF for more delta-V.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    If we were sending out probes to the outer solar system on a regular basis, we would not have stopped the plutonium production. But I agree, reactors are cleaner at launch, and provide more power. It’s a our grandkids will look down at us for making the deliberate decision not to use them.

    It’d be great to have a Centaur on a FH, but the price of pad hardware could be very expensive.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    There was also the Cold War factor. Why do you think the Soviets made a big deal of being first to drop nickel-medals (with the hammer & sickle emblem) on to the surface of Venus in March, 1966, with little or no scientific return? America was badly humiliated by the Soviets in deep-space exploration in 1959 with the remarkable achievements of the Luna probes that year. It took numerous Pioneer, Atlas-Able, and Ranger failures before
    NASA & JPL could overtake the Soviets in 1964. And starting in 1964, JPL crammed as much instrumentation it could onto the Mariner probes to deal with tight-budgets at that time for planetary exploration due to the Cold-War driven Project Apollo taking the lion’s share of NASA’s budget. When Project Apollo achieved it’s Presidential goal and drew to a close, JPL took that as a cue to ask for more money for more ambitious planetary spacecraft (the one’s you call flagships) to serve as a new beacon for America’s pride in its overall space program.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Pad hardware upgrade will be minimum with the transporter erector launcher, it already got the LOX feed lines.

    The main different between the SpaceX and RUAG payload fairings is the length with the diameter quite similar. Remember that the Centaur is totally encapsulated in the RAUG PLF. They just need an adapter fairing ring from the Falcon Heavy 2nd stage to the PLF.

    Main issue is replenishing the Centaur with a small amount of liquid Hydrogen when vertical at the pad.

    Really wanted to see a 3 & 1/2 stage Falcon Heavy Centaur launch. Guess it depends on the pace of progress of the BFR.