NASA's New Horizons weathers trouble just days from Pluto

At the edge of our solar system, the spacecraft put itself into safe mode, leaving it temporarily unable to gather groundbreaking new data on the famous former planet.

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Eric Mack
3 min read

It's hard to do science in safe mode. NASA

After its decade-long journey to the edge of our solar system, a NASA spacecraft ran into some technical problems just 10 days short of when it's supposed to make its closest approach to Pluto and send back reams of unprecedented new information about the ex-planet.

On Saturday, NASA reported that New Horizons, which launched in 2006, "experienced an anomaly this afternoon that led to a loss of communication with Earth. Communication has since been re-established and the spacecraft is healthy."

During the hour and 21 minutes that New Horizons' mission operations center was out of touch with the craft, its autopilot detected a problem, switched to its backup computer and went into "safe mode" to get back in touch with Earth.

Much as with computer operating systems like Windows that we're used to, entering New Horizons' safe mode likely made controllers feel more anxious than safe, given that the craft would be unable to collect science data during the time it takes NASA to initiate a recovery plan and get New Horizons back on track.

By Sunday, though, NASA reported that things were returning to normal and that preparations were under way to resume planned science operations by Tuesday, July 7. The cause of the worries? A "hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence" as New Horizons got itself ready for its Pluto flyby. No similar operations are planned, and no hardware or software fault occurred, the space agency said.

The flyby is still expected to take place as planned, and the science observations missed during the anomaly won't affect the primary mission. "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.

Still, this is cutting things pretty close, given that New Horizons is meant to reach Pluto just a week and a half from the time of this writing. It's a bit like being 12 years old and coming down with chicken pox just a few days before a long-anticipated family trip to Disney World...if that trip had been in the works your entire life and cost over half a billion dollars.

"Okay. This is scary," The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla wrote in a blog post before offering an update on the craft's status. "But don't fear: the spacecraft is on course. Even if (heaven forbid) the spacecraft never recovered from safe mode, it would still fly past Pluto at the planned distance, speed, and time; no further trajectory correction maneuvers are planned from now until after the flyby."

What was scary to Lakdawalla was the potential loss of science data, which would be minimal if New Horizons emerges from safe mode soon, or well... worse, if it doesn't.

"I'll willingly admit that I freaked out, just a little bit, when I first heard this news," she writes. "But I have confidence that the team will handle it and will return the mission to normal operations with no serious loss to science."

Let's hope so, because there's so much intriguing weirdness to be investigated on the dwarf planet, from its mysterious spots to the drunken dance moves of its moons.

We'll keep an eye on New Horizons' status and keep you updated on the mission.

Update, July 6 at 6:22 a.m. PT: Added information from NASA's note that the spacecraft's operations are returning to normal.