New Horizons’ last-minute scare

PlutoNASA’s New Horizons abruptly loses contact with Earth-based ground controllers and then signals that it has gone into safe mode, ten days before its closest flyby of Pluto. In this mode, the spacecraft gathers no scientific data, and awaits intervention from Earth, but its distance from Earth – four billion miles away – means that signals transmitted to or from New Horizons take four and a half hours to reach their destination (and any reply takes just as long). A timing error is located in New Horizons’ automatic event sequencer, a vital part of its mission since it will need to operate independently to conduct hundreds of observations of Pluto and its satellites with no contact from Earth until later, and the probe is rebooted within 48 hours. Though the probe’s automatic switch to failsafe mode has cost the mission some scientific observations, most of the high-value data will not be collected until within 24 hours of closest approach on July 14th.