Spacecraft en route to Pluto hits bump, recovers

World Today

This photo obtained July 7, 2015 from NASA shows new color images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft showing two very different faces of the mysterious planet Pluto, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. (AFP photo/Handout-NASA)

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is on track to sweep past Pluto next week despite hitting a “speed bump” that temporarily halted science collection.

A computer overload prompted the spacecraft to partially shut down on July 4th, just days before the first-ever close flyby of Pluto. Flight controllers managed to regain contact with the spacecraft in just over an hour and correct the tense situation, occurring after a relatively quiet journey of 3 billion miles (4.83 billion kilometers) and 9½ years.

This series of New Horizons images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken at 13 different times spanning 6.5 days, starting on April 12 and ending on April 18, 2015.

This series of New Horizons images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken at 13 different times spanning 6.5 days, starting on April 12 and ending on April 18, 2015.

“We’re on to Pluto!” NASA’s director of planetary science, Jim Green, assured journalists Monday.

About 2½ days of science observations were lost because of the problem. That represents about 30 observations out of 500 planned over the next week.

Principal scientist Alan Stern said it was more important to recover the spacecraft than worry about some lost observations of a Pluto still several million miles away. Data collection is expected to resume Tuesday, one week before the long-awaited flyby.

“While we prefer that this event hadn’t occurred this is a speed bump in terms of the total return that we expect from this flyby,” said Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Pluto and its big moon Charon already are surprising scientists with their surface appearances, “and we’re excited to get back to that,” he added Monday.


Stern as well as others involved in the mission said they do not expect the problem to re-occur. The main computer was multi-tasking in preparation for the big event coming up — and dealing with heavier, more complex data loads than expected — when the trouble arose. The spacecraft went into its so-called safe mode, and science operations ceased. Contact was restored through its backup computer.

No changes were made to the flyby plan as a direct result of Saturday’s problem, according to officials.

New Horizons — about the size of a baby grand piano — was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006. It was designed and built by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, which also is managing the $700 million mission for NASA. That’s where the New Horizons flight control team is based.

Story by the Associated Press


NASA spacecraft to get close-up images of dwarf planet

It’s a neighbor we know very little about and that’s partly because it’s billions of kilometers away. The dwarf planet, Pluto. CCTV’s John Zarrella filed this report from Washington.

NASA spacecraft to get close-up images of dwarf planet

It's a neighbor we know very little about and that's partly because it's billions of kilometers away. The dwarf planet, Pluto. CCTV's John Zarrella filed this report from Washington.