Something 'scary' went wrong with NASA's probe to Pluto

New horizonsNASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve GribbenArtist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in July 2015.

On July 4, NASA got an unexpected surprise: Its spacecraft, New Horizons, cut off communications with Earth as it was headed towards Pluto.

New Horizons is scheduled to fly by Pluto on July 14 and use the slew of instruments on board to collect information that will significantly advance the way we understand this tiny, icy world that’s floating in space 4.67 billion miles away.

However, that goal is now in jeopardy.

At 1:54 p.m. ET on July 4, something happened that caused New Horizons to cut communications with Earth, NASA reported.

The agency was able to reestablish a connection with the spacecraft within the next 90 minutes, and it reported that the spacecraft is “healthy” and still on course to fly by Pluto, according to The Planetary Society.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that in order to reestablish connection, the spacecraft kicked itself into safe mode and is now no longer collecting scientific data. So, all of the photos and scientific measurements that scientists have been looking forward to for nearly a decade, since New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006, might never be collected.

“This is scary,” wrote Emily Lakdawalla for The Planetary Society. “It’s not what the team wanted to be dealing with right now.”

The main objective now for the New Horizons team is to get the spacecraft back into normal operating mode. Within hours of the reported problem, the team convened a review board that is now “working to return New Horizons to its original [science] flight plan.”

But that’s going to take longer than anyone would like because of how far away New Horizons is from Earth. And with only nine days until the spacecraft is scheduled to fly by Pluto, the clock is ticking.

It takes 4.5 hours for the spacecraft to transmit information about what might have happened to it back to Earth. NASA reported that “full recovery is expected to take from one to several days.”

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