The New Horizons probe is quickly moving closer to Pluto for our first flyby of the distant almost-planet. Last Saturday afternoon something went wrong, hitting the probe out of communication for over an hour. Now we’re back in touch and trying to find out what occurred. The facts so far are still unknown: the New Horizons spacecraft lost contact with mission operations at 1:54pm on Saturday, July 4th, with communications restored by 3:15pm. Sometime during that break, the spacecraft’s onboard computers spotted some yet-to-be-determined irregularity, flipped itself into safe mode, and started trying reconnect with Earth using its backup computer. Now it’s feeding us a stable stream of telemetry in an effort to help us tiny Earthlings conclude what went wrong, and is withholding science until we figure it out.
The best part of all of this is that New Horizons did precisely what it was thought to do when things went pear-shaped (or whatever unanticipated fruit-shape this turns out to be once the anomaly recovery team unravels the problem), and that we’re back in touch. Even better, all the trajectory manoeuvres to push into a Pluto close-approach already taken place, so the spacecraft is still where we imagined and going where we want. The not good part is that we don’t know what exactly went wrong, and it’s going to take some time to completely recover science operations. The probe is 4.9 billion kilometers (3 billion miles) from Earth right now: that means a nine-hour round-trip communications pause between robot and humans will extremely hamper troubleshooting. In a statement issued by NASA, the anomaly team said they anticipate full recovery is going to take at “one to several days” to identify what went wrong and fully recover the spacecraft out of safe mode.
With the spacecraft just ten days until its closest-approach to Pluto, it’ll take some keen brainpower to not only detect whatever the causing anomaly was, but get the mission’s study plan of, “Take this photo here, and this measurement there...” back on track.
While “unexpected” is generally a very thrilling term when describing exploration, this is one example where it’s more nerve-wracking than terrifying. Good luck to the Anomaly Review Board, and let’s hope for no more glitches as New Horizons sneaks up on Pluto before entering into the boundless unknown!