Pluto mission back on as New Horizons spacecraft mends itself

6 Jul 2015

New Horizons is just over a week from Pluto, where it will record the closest-ever observation of the dwarf planet. On Saturday it broke down, today it has recovered.

NASA’s spacecraft, which is in its 10th year on its mission to Pluto, surprisingly went into safe mode, just a few million miles from its mission destination.

That stumped NASA for a while, but the scientists working on the mission eventually established that an anomaly – due to a “hard-to-detect timing flaw” – caused the glitch, with no software or hardware issues expected.

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science.

“Now – with Pluto in our sights – we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

NASA hopes to restart New Horizons’ science missions tomorrow, with the couple of days of inactivity not affecting the overall project.

“In terms of science, it won’t change an A-plus even into an A,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder.

There’s a pretty valid reason for the slack restart in New Horizons’ scientific work, with the spacecraft more than 3bn miles away, travelling at light speed. That means Stern and his crew need to wait 4.5 hours for communications to go each way.

New Horizons is not planning to hang around Pluto very long after its arrival on 14 July, with it engaging in a flyby recon mission, rather than orbiting the dwarf planet for an extended period.

Main graphic via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic