Today’s Top Space Headline –“We’ve Lost Contact!” –NASA’s New Horizon’s Mission to Pluto Was Nearly a Heartbreaker

 
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"What made this even worse, was that every move had to be done by remote control with a nine-hour round-trip radio communication time between mission control and the spacecraft. Science classes teach how the speed of light is incredibly fast, how a signal moving at that speed can travel around the world in an eighth of a second or to the moon and back—a half-million-mile trip—in just two and a half seconds. But for the New Horizons team trying to get their spacecraft back on track as it closed in on Pluto, the great distance between Earth and New Horizons made the speed of light seem excruciatingly slow."

 


On the Saturday afternoon of July 4, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission leader Alan Stern was in his office near the project Mission Control Center, working, when his cell phone rang. He was aware of the Independence Day holiday but was much more focused on the fact that the date was “Pluto flyby minus 10 days.” New Horizons, the spacecraft mission that had been the central focus of his career for 14 years, was now just 10 days from its targeted encounter with the most distant planet ever explored, writes David Grinspoon and Alan Stern in Nautilus magazine.

 

Alan Stern (below center) is the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, is a planetary scientist, space program executive, aerospace consultant, and author, he has participated in over two dozen scientific space missions. David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, award-winning science communicator, and prize-winning author. His previous books include Earth in Human Hands, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Scientific American, and others. His work focuses on comparative planetology, with a focus on climate evolution on Earth-like planets and implications for habitability.

 

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Immersed in work that afternoon, Alan was busy preparing for the flyby. He was used to operating on little sleep during this final approach phase of the mission, but that day he’d gotten up in the middle of the night and gone into their Mission Operations Center (MOC) for the upload of the crucial, massive set of computer instructions to guide the spacecraft through its upcoming close flyby. That “command load” represented nearly a decade of work, and that morning it had been sent by radio transmission hurtling at the speed of light to reach New Horizons, then on its approach to Pluto.

 

Alice Bowman: the Mission Operations Manager, at work in the Mission Operations Center. On the job, Bowman is the “MOM” of the MOC.

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This photo was taken during the New Horizons (final) hibernation wake-up on Dec. 6, 2014. Bowman said, “It looks like I was either asking for a different configuration or asking about the telemetry I was seeing on the displays.” (SwRI/JHUAPL/NASA)

Glancing at his ringing phone, Alan was surprised to see the caller was Glen Fountain, the longtime project manager of New Horizons. He felt a chill because he knew that Glen was taking time off for the holiday, at his nearby home, before the final, all-out intensity of the upcoming flyby. Why would Glen be calling now?

Alan picked up the phone. “Glen, what’s up? We’ve lost contact with the spacecraft.” Alan replied, “I’ll meet you in the MOC; see you in five minutes.” Alan hung up his phone and sat down at his desk for a few seconds, stunned, shaking his head in disbelief. Unintentional loss of contact with Earth should never happen to any spacecraft. It had never before happened to New Horizons over the entire nine-year flight from Earth to Pluto. How could this be happening now, just 10 days out from Pluto?

Throughout the nine long years of travel toward the ninth planet, the radio link to New Horizons was the lifeline that allowed its team to contact and control the craft and to receive spacecraft status and data from its observations. As New Horizons kept going farther to the outer reaches of the solar system, the time delays to communicate with it increased, and the link had lengthened to what was now a nine-hour round trip for radio signals, traveling at the speed of light.

Loss of communications is about as bad a thing as a mission control team can experience—it means the link to Earth is broken.

To stay in touch, New Horizons depends, as do all long-distance spacecraft, on a largely unknown and unsung marvel of planetary exploration: NASA’s Deep Space Network. This trio of giant radio-dish complexes in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia, seamlessly hands off communication duties between one another as the Earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours. The three stations are spread around the world so that no matter where an object is in deep space, at any time at least one of the antenna complexes can point in its direction.

But now … the DSN had lost contact with one of their most precious assets, New Horizons.

If this were an orbiter, or a rover safely on an alien surface, the team could take its time to analyze the problem, make recommendations, try different courses of action. But New Horizons was a flyby mission. The spacecraft was rushing toward Pluto at over 750,000 miles per day—more than 31,000 miles per hour. Back to working order or not, it would fly by the planet on July 14, never to return. There was no stopping New Horizons as they sorted the problem out. There was only one shot at getting the goods at Pluto—New Horizons had no backup, no second chance, no way to delay its date with Pluto.

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