Pluto Probe Suffers Glitch 10 Days Before Epic Flyby

Pluto Probe Suffers Glitch 10 Days Before Epic Flyby

A glitch caused NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to go dark for more than an hour Saturday (July 4), just 10 days before its historic flyby of Pluto.

The probe's handlers lost contact with New Horizons at 1:54 p.m. EDT (1754 GMT) Saturday yet were able to restore communications at 3:15 p.m. EDT (1915 GMT).

"During that time, the autonomous autopilot on board the spacecraft recognized a problem & — as it’s programmed to do in such a situation — switched from the main to the backup computer," New Horizons team members wrote in an update Saturday.

"The autopilot placed the spacecraft in 'safe mode,' & commanded the backup computer to reinitiate communication with Earth," they added. "New Horizons then began to transmit telemetry to assist engineers diagnose the problem."

Members of an "anomaly review board" are currently investigating the issue & working to obtain New Horizons back up to speed. Mission officials said the recovery process could take several days, since it takes approximately 4.5 hours for commands to obtain to the spacecraft, which is nearly 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) from Earth.

"New Horizons will be temporarily unable to collect science data during that time," team members wrote. "Status updates will be issued as new information is available."

The $700 million New Horizons mission launched in January 2006, tasked with performing the first-ever up-close investigation of the Pluto system. On July 14, the spacecraft will fly past the dwarf planet at a distance of just 7,800 miles (12,500 km).

While the most thrilling science data will be gathered at & around closest approach, New Horizons has already begun lifting the veil on Pluto. Images beamed home in the past week or so have revealed intriguing surface features on the dwarf planet, including large, evenly spaced dark patches near the equator that have scientists scratching their heads.

New Horizons' recent photos have moreover shown that Pluto is reddish brown while its largest moon, Charon, sports a grayish hue.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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