NASA lost contact with New Horizons over the weekend

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Just 10 days before it was due to make its closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft suffered what is being called an anomaly on July 4, forcing it to enter safe mode over the weekend while mission engineers worked to diagnose the problem.

According to Forbes and NBC News reports, the $700 million probe experienced a glitch around 2pm Eastern time on Saturday that caused the US space agency to lose contact with it for slightly less than an hour and a half. Mission control personnel were able to regain contact via the NASA Deep Space Network at 3:15 Eastern.

After losing contact with mission scientists on the ground, New Horizons went into autonomous autopilot and switched control from its primary computer to its backup one, coming back online in safe mode and attempting to reinitiate communication with Earth. It then started transmitting telemetry to help the engineers figure out the cause of the problem.

In a statement, NASA said that their investigation into the incident revealed that New Horizons did not experience any hardware or software problems, and that issue was caused by “a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence” that had “occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby.”

Contact reestablished; science operations to resume Tuesday

Officials at the agency said that no similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter, and that New Horizons was on track to resume normal science operations on Tuesday, July 7. The entire July 14 close-flyby sequence will continue as planned, they added.

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” noted Jim Green, the Director of Planetary Science at NASA. “Now – with Pluto in our sights – we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and his colleagues said that the science observations lost during the recovery from the anomaly would have no impact on the mission’s primary objectives, and only a minimal effect on the lesser objectives.

“In terms of science, “ Stem said, “it won’t change an A-plus even into an A.”

Currently, New Horizons is roughly six million miles (9.9 million kilometers) from Pluto and is on course for its scheduled flyby, travelling at a speed of more than 30,000 mph (50,000 km per hour) as it draws closer to the dwarf planet and its moons. The spacecraft’s instruments will be mapping Pluto’s surface, studying its composition and analyzing its atmosphere.


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