Just days before New Horizons is due to make its historic flyby of Pluto, NASA lost contact with the grand-piano-size spacecraft at 18:54pm (BST) on the afternoon of 4 July for a nail-biting hour and twenty minutes.
Thankfully, the mission’s controllers were able to make contact with New Horizons using NASA’s Deep Space Network, a world-wide network of large antennas spread across California, Spain and Australia, at approximately 20:15pm (EDT). However, the spacecraft’s systems have entered safe mode until engineers can figure out what went wrong.
“The autonomous autopilot on board the spacecraft recognised a problem and – as it’s programmed to do in such a situation – switched from the main to the backup computer,” says NASA in a statement. “The autopilot placed the spacecraft in “safe mode” and commanded the backup computer to reinitiate communication with Earth.”
As a result of a New Horizons Anomaly Review Board (ARB), which convened not long after contact with the spacecraft had been restored, a recovery plan has been initiated. “The team is now working to return the mission to its original flight plan,” says NASA. “This may take up to several days, during which the mission will not be able to collect any science data.”
New Horizons is almost 4.9 billion kilometres (3 billion miles) from Earth. At present, there has been no official word that the hiccup will affect the spacecraft’s rendezvous with Pluto on 14 July.
Check out our sister magazine How It Works‘ video to find out more about the New Horizon mission.