NASA Announces New Horizons Pluto Probe Will Be Okay for Flyby


NASA announced late Sunday night that its New Horizons Pluto probe will be okay in time for its scheduled flyby of Pluto, in about a week, despite having temporarily lost contact with the probe. After a time span of more than an hour and twenty minutes during which NASA lost contact with the New Horizons spacecraft on July 4, NASA released a statement that they were working out the cause of the anomaly, which many people feared might interfere with the planned flyby of Pluto.

On Sunday night, NASA reported that its investigation into why it lost contact with the New Horizons probe and why it entered into a “safe mode” has discovered a cause. The New Horizons webpage states that the cause was not due to a “hardware or software default,” but was instead the result of “a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby.”

According to NASA, no other similar command sequences are planned, and the decade-long mission, which has so far cost $700 million, will be okay for its scheduled flyby of Pluto on Tuesday, July 14. In the words of NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green, the space agency is “on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

The Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission said that whatever science observations that were lost during the time of the anomaly recovery phase will not prevent the achievement of “any primary mission objectives.” The possible effect on “lesser objectives,” he stated, would be “minimal.”

After having lost contact with NASA’s New Horizons Pluto probe for a little under an hour-and-a-half on Saturday, July 4, it now will return to normal operations by July 7. The spacecraft’s mission to do a flyby of Pluto and then the Kuiper Belt will continue, as planned.

The New Horizons webpage states that the Pluto probe is now “almost 3 billion miles away, where radio signals, even traveling at light speed, need 4.5 hours to reach home.” Because of these vast distances, the information at the webpage states that “Two-way communication between the spacecraft and its operators requires a nine-hour round trip.”

The space agency lost contact with New Horizons Pluto probe temporarily on Saturday, July 4, “at 1:54 p.m. EDT,” according to the New Horizons site. The space agency managed to reestablish “communications with New Horizons at 3:15 p.m. EDT, through NASA’s Deep Space Network,” but the cause of why the space agency lost contact and why it entered into a “safe mode” has been figured out after an investigation took place. It was due to a “timing flaw,” and the problem has been resolved and it should not happen again during the rest of the mission.

The closest that the New Horizons spacecraft will come to Pluto will be on July 14, and the first post-flyby data is expected to arrive and be analyzed on July 15, which is also when Departure Phase 1 will begin. Then, the New Horizons probe will prepare to leave and continue its explorations, though it will still send data back to NASA about Pluto until approximately the time frame of October to December 2016, when the Pluto encounter data playback ends.

NASA has announced via the New Horizons webpage that the New Horizons Pluto probe will be okay for the July 14 planned flyby of Pluto. Information at the NASA New Horizons site states that, though the problem has been found and was resolved, “full recovery is expected to take from one to several days.” The space agency is making preparations to continue with the scheduled space observations by July 7.

Written and Edited By Douglas Cobb

Forbes: After Anomaly Scare, NASA’s Pluto Flyby Mission
Plans Return To Normal Operations New Horizons still on schedule for Pluto flyby
The Planetary Society (blog): New Horizons enters safe mode
10 days before Pluto flyby [UPDATED]
New Horizons Official Webpage
Photo Courtesy of Bernt Rostad’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons 2.0