Environment & Science

NASA probe suffers glitch days before reaching Pluto

Prior to a system glitch on July 4th, New Horizons collected this high resolution image of the dwarf planet Pluto.
Prior to a system glitch on July 4th, New Horizons collected this high resolution image of the dwarf planet Pluto.

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While most of us were relaxing on the Fourth of July, NASA was trying to fix the computers onboard its New Horizons probe in time for its historic encounter with Pluto next week.

The team worked overnight Saturday and much of Sunday to fix it and some scientific data was lost in the process.

The trouble began around 11 am P.T. when NASA lost contact with the probe, which has been traveling through space for the past nine years and is currently about 3 billion miles from Earth.

"The New Horizons team immediately went into action," said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA, during a press conference Monday.

Engineers were called in and the connection was re-established with in 90 minutes, he explained, however the system was in "safe-mode."

From there, the team tried to identify the source of the problem, a task made more difficult due to a 9-hour, round trip communication delay.

Eventually, it was discovered that the system crashed when onboard computers were attempting two complicated operations at once.

Lead scientist Alan Stern says the team was able to correct the problem, but while doing so they lost some of the data the probe had collected.

"That was a command decision which I made and which the team was in complete agreement," said Stern.

"It was much more important to focus on getting ready for the flyby than to collect science 8 or 9 million miles from the target when the target is still small.”

The probe will switch to "encounter mode" July 7th. In this phase it should be able to reboot automatically and continue gathering data even if new glitches appear.

It’ll make it’s closest pass of Pluto on the 14th, sending back the most detailed data ever on the mysterious former planet.

(These three images show the full extent of a large and mysterious dark patch that covers part of Pluto. Image via NASA.)

Pluto is small, it would cover no more than 3.3 percent of the Earth's surface.

Still, it is full of mystery.

"This object is unlike any other other that we have observed," Stern said of Pluto.

Scientists already know a handful of intriguing things about it, for instance, it appears to have an atmosphere, seasons and even a form of weather.

However, all of this is based on distant observations.

Much more detailed data will be gathered as New Horizons speeds by less than 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface.

Stern said this mission will provide a vast amount of new information about Pluto and its moons and could lead to many fascinating discoveries.

“We’re going to knock your socks off,” he added.