NASA has announced in a status report released on Sunday that its New Horizons spacecraft, which is set to be the first probe ever to do a flyby of Pluto, suffered a computer glitch that provoked a temporary setback on scientific operations.
The control team lost contact with the probe for almost an hour and a half on Saturday, as New Horizons automatically set itself into safe mode after losing power from its primary computer and switching onto its backup one. The cause of the power loss is still under investigation by mission control.
The agency said in the same status report that it was expecting the spacecraft to recover with one and a couple of days from now, in any case before it reaches Pluto’s orbit. While in safe mode, the shuttle can’t take high resolution images or anything else that would help the research team. The shuttle is now at about a 3 billion miles distance from Earth, and direct communication with it has 4 and a half hours delay, both in transmitting radio signals from it and receiving its responses.
This incident will not change the schedule which the control team has in set, with final instructions for the Pluto flyby being set to be transmitted tonight. They have included a software modification which will make the craft unable to enter safe mode in case of a computer malfunction.
Lead scientist Alan Stern explained that these particular instructions, labeled as the “encounter program”, will ensure that the spacecraft keeps its scientific research systems online in case of a primary computer malfunction, while trying to repair the problem itself. This will be done to ensure that any problems which have occurred will not make it miss the flyby.
The New Horizons space mission started more than nine years ago, in January 2006, and is now only 9 days away from being the first spacecraft to visit former planet and actual dwarf planet Pluto. The probe will gather information not only from the planet, but from its complex system of moons, for which it has already offered some interesting data with ultra-long range photography. NASA researchers are also expecting to find more moons in its orbit, as four if the five currently known moons have been discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope after New Horizons’ departure from Cape Canaveral.
Image Source: Discovery News