The next two months will mark a huge milestone in space history as a spacecraft nears its final destination on Pluto. The dwarf planet, located in a region of the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, has been shrouded in mystery since its initial discovery over 80 years ago in 1930.
In light of the event, excitement has been building among the scientific community. Due to its distance from Earth, Pluto – named after the god of the underworld – has generally been inaccessible to astronomers and scientists up until this point. The spacecraft that will visit the dwarf planet departed from Earth nearly 9 years ago on the New Horizons mission. Since then, it has traveled approximately 2.9 billion miles.
In order to conserve energy while on the journey, the spacecraft has spent over half of the time in a state of intermittent hibernation – alternating between on and off states for months. The tracking system, on the other hand, remained awake at all times to allow scientists to ensure that the spacecraft was still on course.
The most recent period of hibernation will soon come to an end on December 6, 2014 at 12 PM PST. Upon awakening, scientists estimate it will take another hour and a half before the spacecraft is able to reply back due to the distance of Pluto from Earth.
However, once a stable connection is established, six weeks worth of check-ups will follow to ensure that the spacecraft is safe and on track.
Accordingly, the next step will require perfect calculation and timing. Due to Pluto’s 247-year long orbit around the sun, scientists estimate that a 7-minute difference in calculations could deem the whole project unusable. Speeding dust particles in the solar system also pose a threat to the spacecraft since they can travel at speeds up to 30,000 miles an hour.
At present, the spacecraft it is still over 175 million miles away from the dwarf planet, so updates on the journey are not expected until January 2015. However, if all things go according to plan, scientists expect to start getting information of Pluto’s geology as early as June.