Pluto Mission to Resume Normal Operations on July 7

Pluto Mission to Resume Normal Operations on July 7

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft that is just days away from its closest approach to Pluto is expected to resume normal operations on July 7 after an anomaly yesterday.  The spacecraft has been enroute to Pluto since January 2006 and will get its best view of the dwarf planet as it flies past on July 14.

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said in a statement posted on the New Horizons website this evening (Eastern Daylight Time–EDT) that “we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

Mission managers announced yesterday (July 4) that the probe had stopped communicating with Earth at 1:34 pm EDT and although communications were restored at 3:15 pm EDT, it was with the probe’s backup computer.   Under those circumstances systems data could be transmitted back to Earth to help diagnose the problem, but planned science observations could not be undertaken. 

The spacecraft is 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth and it takes 9 hours for radio signals to make the two-way trip.

Tonight’s statement provided few details, saying that it was not a hardware or software error, but a “hard to detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare” for the July 14 flyby.  No similar events are planned for the remainder of the journey to Pluto.

The lost science observations during this period are not considered significant by the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).  He said the loss of the data will not “change an A-plus even into an A.”


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