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New Horizons Returns to Normal After July 4 'Anomaly'

Jul 07, 2015 03:20 AM EDT

The intrepid spacecraft New Horizons is just about a week from its historic rendezvous with the beloved protoplanet known as Pluto. However, this past weekend the missions' primary investigators lost contact with the deep-space probe. Now, NASA reports that the craft is back in business, and will be ready for 'the big day' fast approaching.

So what exactly happened? On July 4th, when most Americans were celebrating Independence Day by breaking out the beers, burgers, and fireworks, a team of experts at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Maryland were biting their nails and holding their breath. Why? At 1:54 (EDT) that afternoon, their spacecraft suddenly and inexplicably went silent.

New Horizons finally made contact with them again over an hour later, around 3:15 pm, through NASA's Deep Space Network, but even then it was quickly revealed that the craft's autopilot had placed it in a restricted "safe mode." (Scroll to read on...)

That meant that while it was once again sending telemetry and reassuring data concerning its hardware and software's integrity, the $700-million probe was not doing what it was out there to do - that is, observe Pluto with its seven state-of-the-art onboard instruments.

To make matters worse, there is a stunning 4.5 hour lag in communication between Earth and the craft, as each command signal sent has to travel an estimated three-billion miles.

That's why, even with telemetry indicating that the spacecraft is in good health, it won't be until Tuesday (July 7) that New Horizons will again be tackling its ongoing mission: observing Pluto as it closes in on the mysterious dwarf planet.

Still, according to New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, the science missed during this brief communication blackout wasn't significant.

 "In terms of science, it won't change an A-plus even into an A," he said in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)

Back on Track

Following a hasty investigation, it was also revealed today that the blackout occurred after the craft's software "timed out." If you've ever tried to open too many internet tabs at once, only to have your browser crash, you have a rough understanding of how exactly this can happen. Hell hath no fury like bottlenecking data.

"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."

Bad Luck Behind Us

What's interesting is that this isn't the first time New Horizons drew the short straw.

According to the spacecraft's construction and mission teams, even prepping the rocket that eventually launched the craft saw some unforeseen difficulties right until the very end.

"Hurricane Wilma blew through while we were stacking the rocket," Mike Stelzer, the mission manager for New Horizons through NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP), explained in a statement. "Part of a door tore off in the high winds and hit one of the solids."

The October hurricane of 2005 boasted some maximum sustained winds of nearly 77 mph - more than enough to tear apart a 41-by-275-foot reinforced fabric 'megadoor' and wreak havoc at a launch site.

That was a huge worry, according to Chuck Tatro, who was the New Horizons launch site mission manager for LSP, as the craft has a very "tight timeline to take advantage of a brief lineup of Earth, Jupiter and Pluto." (Scroll to read on...)

He explained that although there were backup launch opportunities in 2006 and 2007, any launch outside the primary period would have forced New Horizons to take a slower route that did not fully take advantage of Jupiter's gravity to slingshot it to Pluto. Missing this chance could have delayed the crafts 'blind date' with the protoplanet by five to six years.

Amazingly, things worked out just in time.

"[Our crew] a great job recovering from the storm and that kept us on schedule," Tatro said.

Now, nearly a decade later after that lucky launch, New Horizons is a week away from getting closer and more intimate with Pluto than any other man-made craft.

"For all of you who worked on this, thank you very much; it worked flawlessly," added Stern. "For the whole scientific community, for our science team, for our mission team, and for all the people who worked this, a big round of applause to all of you."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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