On Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. ET, an alarm clock went off for NASA’s New Horizons probe, 2.9 billion miles away from Earth. At 9:52 p.m., the piano-size spacecraft sent a message back to Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory saying it was awake and all systems were functioning.
Back on Earth, in a conference room at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, 20 people cheered as they received New Horizons’ message. Champagne was poured, and mission managers played a special recording of “Where My Heart Will Take Me” by English tenor Russell Watson.
The wake-up call means New Horizons is ready to be the first spacecraft to get close-up photos of Pluto and its five moons. On July 14, 2015, the probe will make its closest approach to dwarf planet. Over 20 weeks, it will snap photos of Pluto and its moons before going on to explore the icy, rocky objects in the Kuiper Belt at the outermost edge of our solar system.
Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, called this a turning point in the nine year mission.
“This is the turning of a page. This is changing from a mission in cruise to a mission at its destination,” Sterns said.
The $700 million probe was launched in 2006. Powered by a nuclear power generator, it has traveled 2.9 billion miles since then, making it the fastest space probe ever launched. As of its wake-up call Saturday evening, it was 162 million miles from Pluto.
New Horizons has been in hibernation since August, its final nap on its nine-year trip to Pluto and points beyond. To prevent unnecessary wear and tear on its systems, the spacecraft has slept through almost two thirds of its journey.
If you want to hear Russell Watson’s special message and overture to New Horizons, you can watch his performance here: