By December 6, 2014, NASA’s New Horizons probe had already traveled an awe-inspiring three billion miles over an agonizing period of nine years. It was on that day the probe’s operators carefully nudged it awake from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory situated in Laurel, Maryland. Everything went as expected until yesterday, when the probe suffered a glitch that put it back to sleep.
While the rest of us celebrated our Independence Day, the New Horizons operations team watched the disaster unfold. At 1:45 p.m. EDT, they lost contact with the probe just ten days before a historic Pluto flyby that could help provide insight into how icy dwarf planets evolved in our solar system.
Over the course of the mission, New Horizons team members used Hubble Space Telescope images to discover four new satellites: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. The New Horizons probe will help us learn more about these and other worlds.
In addition, the New Horizons probe may be our last real chance to explore Pluto before another country beats us to it. According to NASA’s mission statement:
The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. If New Horizons is successful, it will allow the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.
Have we lost our chance?
New Horizons probe currently running in “Safe Mode”
After the probe detected a potential malfunction, it automatically made the switch to its backup computer. At 3:15 p.m. EDT–over an hour after the initial shutdown–the New Horizons probe regained communications capabilities.
By 4 p.m., a recovery plan had already been initiated by the diligent New Horizons Anomaly Review Board (ARB). Currently, the team expects the spacecraft to make a complete recovery.
However, this could take several days due to the four hour and 26 minute radio signal delay that results from the nearly three billion mile span between operator and machine. This means that each time the team sends a command to the probe, it takes approximately nine hours to hear back.
It remains to be determined whether or not this setback will necessitate a change in the original timetable set forth by NASA. Right now, it’s a waiting game.
[UPDATED on 7/6/2015] Flight controllers successfully regained contact with New Horizons on July 4th, inspiring NASA’s director of planetary science, Jim Green, to shout, “We’re on to Pluto!”