Update, July 5: Teams have sorted out what happened on board the New Horizons spacecraft, and normal science operations will resume July 7. “The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby,” NASA said. Impacts to science data should be minimal, and no similar sequences are planned between now and the closest approach to Pluto, which will happen on July 14. (Read the full statement here.)
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is hurtling toward a historic rendezvous with Pluto in just 10 days, briefly lost contact with Earth around 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time today. For about 80 minutes, teams on the ground couldn’t reach the spacecraft, which is currently 11 million kilometers from the frosted dwarf planet and its complex system of moons. (In fact, New Horizons is so far away that it takes messages traveling at the speed of light 4.5 hours to get there.)
It’s not clear exactly what happened yet, but an on-board anomaly sent New Horizons into safe mode. Though it’s not the first time the spacecraft has slipped into safe mode, the proximity to the Pluto encounter makes the situation considerably more stressful. New Horizons has since regained contact with mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. There, scientists and engineers are working to understand what happened, and to restore the spacecraft to full operations. That could take between one and several days.
Though the brief loss of communication means no science data can be collected during this time period, National Geographic has learned that the team isn’t in danger of losing either the spacecraft or the flyby — which is extremely good news, for at least a million reasons.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.