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An artist s conception of New Horizons. Credit: NASA An artist's conception of New Horizons. Credit: NASA

New Horizons completes dress rehearsal for Pluto mission

Sen— NASA's Pluto-probing New Horizons spacecraft performed "brilliantly" in a dress rehearsal test for its arrival in July 2015.

The spacecraft, which is speeding its way to the distant dwarf planet right now, was put through its paces by ground controllers this summer and was very successful, according to an update posted late last week.

"This dry run, in which the actual flight sequence for closest encounter was loaded aboard New Horizons and executed exactly as it will be in July 2015, was a major test — and it succeeded brilliantly," wrote Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, in a blog post on NASA's website.

"Actually executing the whole shebang this summer was our biggest effort yet, and New Horizons performed outstandingly," Stern added.

"Although the final, excruciatingly detailed engineering reviews of the rehearsal won’t come until early September, the clear success revealed in quick-look data analysis proved to us that the close encounter sequence and spacecraft will perform as designed."

The sequence also demonstrated a happy surprise for controllers, who noted that the spacecraft used less fuel than expected. This means there could be more available after New Horizons passes by Pluto en route to objects in the Kuiper Belt, a band of icy objects surrounding the solar system.

New Horizons picture of Charon

New Horizons' images of Charon and Pluto in July 2013, while the spacecraft was still 885 million kilometres from its target. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Stern also paid tribute to New Horizons' first glimpse of Charon, Pluto's largest moon. In July, NASA released images of Charon whilst New Horizons was still 885 million kilometres from Pluto -- greater than the distance between Jupiter and Earth.

While the images were fuzzy and did not look all that spectacular to the untrained eye, officials noted that these were far better than the discovery images of Charon in the past century. Even better pictures should be generated when New Horizons swings through the system in 2015.

New Horizons will be in almost complete hibernation until June 2014, except for a brief two-week wakeup in January 2014 to make sure the antenna is pointing in the right direction, sending new commands and for routine spacecraft maintenance. 

When the spacecraft awakes in June 2014, controllers will spend two months working with New Horizons. Some of its activities will include course corrections and examining the status of systems on board the spacecraft.

New Horizons will then be put into hibernation again until about November or December. By January 2015, the spacecraft is expected to receive more commands in preparation for its arrival at the system.

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