New Horizons Team Finds Underlying Cause of Glitch; Normal Science Operations Resume on July 7

by Sophia Nasr, @Pharaoness

After encountering a glitch and going into safe mode on July 4th, just 10 days before its historic Pluto flyby, New Horizons will be returning to normal science operations on July 7th.

New Horizons encountered the glitch on the 4th and lost communications with Earth at 1:54 PM EDT. Communications were reestablished at 3:15 PM EDT via NASA's Deep Space Network. The autonomous pilot on the spacecraft put New Horizons in safe mode, meaning no science data could be taken during this period.

The good news is that it wasn't a hardware or software flaw that caused the anomaly, but rather, a timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred from an operation set to prepare the spacecraft for its close encounter with the Pluto system. No other operations like this one are planned for the rest of New Horizons' journey to Pluto.

"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."

On July 7th, New Horizons will carry on with its original science operations, including the close flyby sequence the spacecraft was originally intended to carry out. The reason it takes a few days to resolve a problem like this is New Horizons' distance from the Earth—nearly 5 billion km (3 billion miles). This translates to a distance of 4.5 light-hours, meaning it takes some 4.5 hours for a radio signal sent from the Earth to reach New Horizons, and another 4.5 hours for a signal from New Horizons to arrive on Earth. This means that it takes a total of 9 hours to figure out whether fixes implemented actually worked.

Although the glitch means that potential science data was lost, the science team and principal investigator say that the losses will not affect the primary mission objectives, and only minimally affect some smaller objectives planned along the way. "In terms of science, it won't change an A-plus even into an A," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder.

We will continue to keep you updated as we know more.

For the original press release, click here.

Sophia Nasr is an astrophysics student at York University. Actively involved in the astronomical community at York U, she is the President of the Astronomy Club at York University and a member of the team at the York University Observatory. She also is involved in university projects, and holds a position in research on dark matter at York U. Holding scientific outreach dear, Sophia is actively involved in social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, where she shares with the world her passion for the universe and how it works.

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