With just nine days left until New Horizons’s historic flyby Pluto, NASA lost communication with the spacecraft for 81 nail-biting minutes.
After four hours and a half of sinuous work, communication was successfully re-established. Albeit some data loss, New Horizons is keeping its track and getting closer to the moment it enters Pluto’s orbit.
The communication breakdown happened on Saturday between 1:45 P.M. EDT and 3:15 P.M. EDT. The unknown glitch caused New Horizons to halt radio communication with the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory from Laurel, Maryland where the mission controllers are located.
While the communication was unexpectedly stopped, New Horizons turned on the backup computer via autopilot. The autopilot recognized the glitch, turned on the backup computer and turned New Horizons to safe mode, basically shutting down all nonessential functions in order to re-establish communication with the team back home.
Radio communications were established successfully at 3.15 P.M. EDT, without the cause of the interruption being disclosed. Still, the engineers assigned to New Horizons’s mission are monitoring the spacecraft to understand what might have caused the glitch.
Currently, NASA’s New Horizons is approximately 3 billion miles away from Earth. As such, a full round trip communication between the team in Maryland and New Horizons takes 8.8 hours to complete.
Therefore full recovery of New Horizons isn’t expected to be completed before several days passed by. Nonetheless, engineers are up and about to get everything ready and in place for the 7,800 miles Pluto flyby. With no historic mission having a clean slate, the engineers know how essential time is. However, at this point, New Horizons is unable to collect data.
That is a minor loss compared to the spacecraft’s upcoming encounter. NASA reported that it is possible some imagery of Pluto and Charon, Hydra and Nix will be lost in the attempt to bring New Horizons in full functioning order after a reboot.
Yet, as Richard Binzel, participant in the New Horizons mission commented:
“We may lose a few appetizers off the planned menu, but right now the focus is on delivering the main course.”
The main course is a highly exciting event anxiously awaited by scientists and enthusiasts alike: New Horizons flyby Pluto on July 14th.
After nine years in space and most in hibernation, New Horizons was brought back to life by NASA this January. Eversince, the amount of data it collected is impressive.
The photographs of Pluto and its moons beamed back to Earth have been a delight for all. One final effort and the main destination, Pluto will be reached by New Horizons on July 14th.
Image Source: NASA