NASA’s New Horizons probe came out of hibernation mode today, its first time back to a fully awake state in six months. Until now, the probe has been in an energy-conserving state while traveling close to its next target, a distant and small object known as Ultima Thule. New Horizons is set to fly past that rock on January 1, 2019.
Ultima Thule was previously referred to as 2014 MU69, though the new name itself is merely a nickname. The object is located around 1 billion miles from Pluto’s orbit and researchers don’t know much about it at this time. Scientists have previously said that it’s possible Ultima Thule is two, rather than one, objects.
The upcoming flyby will give researchers their first proper look at the object, after which point the International Astronomical Union and NASA will work together to come up with an official name. The nickname, in the meantime, refers to the fact that MU69 is “beyond the known world.”
Today’s exit from hibernation is an early step in this latest mission. According to NASA, its New Horizons team has determined that the space probe is healthy. As a next step, New Horizons will work to point its cameras toward the target. However, everything will be relatively quiet on this front for the remainder of the year.
New Horizons previously completed a flyby of Pluto, a mission wrapped up on 2105. From that humanity got its first detailed images of Pluto, helping researchers understand the tiny — and still largely mysterious — planet.