I don’t know about all the readers, but I was freaked as hell, after 4th July anomaly. Now the review board has found the detail about the incident that cause the connectivity issue with Earth for mere 90 minute but put the Space Craft into safe mode, and stopped all Science Operation. And all science operation will resume on 7th July, and NASA has confirmed its not going to affect any primary objectives of the mission.
New Horizon is now about 3 billion miles away from earth, approaching at an record breaking speed of around 30,800 miles per hour. For light or radio signal it takes 4.5Hr to travel from New Horizons to Earth, and 9Hr for a round trip. And we officially never explorer anywhere very near to this zone, and hardly have visual confirmation on space bodies. So, in some way you could all it almost driving in darkness.
So, What Happened?
On July 4th at around 1:54 p.m. EDT, the mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory(APL), lost contact with the unmanned spacecraft. Briefly within 90-min, at 3:15 p.m. EDT, NASA regained communications through it’s Deep Space Network. But during this time the onboard system detected an issue and initiate a fail-safe mode as its been programmed, in which it put the spacecraft in safe mode, switch main operation from main computer to the backup computer.
But this is not the scariest part. What freaks everyone out is that this backup computer is programmed to just just the auto pilot system and send telemetry data to Earth, it shuts down all science experiment and instrument. And considering the complexly on the problem and enormous distance and time required to send any instruction and receive data back NASA announced it could take one day to a week to recover the craft in full operation, but we are only 9-days away to closest Flyby of our beloved Pluto!
What’s the Update??
I understand the eagerness in your mind. Yes, NASA just confirmed its expected to resume into full science operation on 7th, almost 7 day before closest approach. The team NASA formed right away after the event has figured out there was no hardware or software fault occurred in the spacecraft. NASA described in the announcement post in this way – “The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby.”
Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science said – “I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft. 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, Boulder said -“In terms of science, it won’t change an A-plus even into an A”. So it does not affect the mission primary objectives.
Key Things to Understand:
New Horizons has backup component for most of the part and main IEMs, and New Horizons is designed to do all major data collection for 9 days period of the closest Pluto flyby, 7 days before the event and 2 days after it. At its arriving on 14th July, the period is suppose to initiate on 7th, so Spacecraft operation team is probably running diagnostic and cross checking operation. So, it seems the anomaly occurred during that period. Now as NASA working to regain full operation in main computer and IEM unit, if it in full operation on that time, we will collect as much data we were expecting. Only maybe we will not see another colored image of Pluto and Charon revolving with more pixel for next 2-3 days.
Why this mission is so Important?
To me it’s kind of one of the most important mission in our life time. Consider few facts you will understand why. Even after the discovery of Pluto it took us around 50 years to understand it to some scale. It took few decade to propose and design a mission of this complex. It took several year to build this spacecraft and its onboard component, and then it took 9-years to reach close to Pluto. Given those circumstances, if this mission failed in major way, with budgetary constrain, it will take another decade to design and finalize another Pluto bound mission. Then more 5-8 years to complete the spacecraft, then 9-12 more year, depending on Earth and Pluto’s position, possible gravitational help from other large planet. So, nothing is going to happen rock solid in next 25 years even still we are lucky. So, this could be our last chance to know more truth about Pluto in our lifetime.
Here are few resource to keep you handy if you are very interested like me about this mission.
You could watch this Video by NASA about detail on the mission and the Spacecraft itself. Specially around 13-min it gets interesting and related to this event.
Mission Home: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/
Image Credit: NASA