New Horizons mission to Pluto prepares for terrifying silence on Tuesday AM

Because the fun won’t start until the evening

On Tuesday morning at 0449 PDT (1149 UTC), the New Horizons space probe will make mankind’s first visit to Pluto, and there will be much rejoicing; but we won’t actually know if the mission is a success until much later.

At a press conference on Monday the team, some of whom have been working on the project for more than 20 years - and who have been good enough to talk to the Reg about the project - explained that despite all the celebrations planned for tomorrow morning, the real crunch time will come at around 1800 PDT (0100 UTC), when the first signals for the probe are returned.

Space – as Douglas Adams observed – is vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big, and the New Horizons probe is currently over three billion miles away from home and getting further away at around 25,000 miles (40,233.60 km) per hour. Because of the distances involved, it takes over four hours for a signal to get back to Earth, and at a pathetically low data rate.

To add to the delay, the probe has been programmed not to bother to phone home on flyby day unless something really unforeseen happens. Instead, New Horizons will use all the resources it has to gather as much data on Pluto and its moons in the brief time it has close to the surface.

During this time NASA wants to distract the probe as little as possible, and the spacecraft has been operating on a preset series of flight instructions for the last week, after an unexpected overload temporarily disabled New Horizons.

Since that rather frantic weekend, NASA has made the probe semi-autonomous and has built a "slam code" into the operating system so that if anything looks dodgy they can make the probe shift to full-recording mode automatically.

Thankfully that hasn’t been necessary and all systems are go for the moment. If all goes to plan, the probe will fire up its communications array at the end of the flyby and begin pumping back the data at a frustratingly slow 2Kbps, even with the nifty compression system NASA is using.

The first data NASA is likely to publish are the close up images people are waiting for. Pluto has been little more than a fuzzy dot for mankind, and scientists and some of the rest of us are salivating at the thought of seeing what the dwarf planet looks like up close and personal.

We may yet be disappointed. While the route the probe has taken was carefully scouted out ahead of time by the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments, their capacity is limited and there may well be tiny orbiting dust motes that could completely bugger the probe.

At the kinds of speeds New Horizon’s probe is going, a small micrometeorite hit head on will utterly destroy it. A less serious impact with a smaller piece of matter could put it into a spin that would destroy any data-gathering capabilities the probe has, rendering its nearly 10-year mission a failure.

Needless to say Tuesday will be tense. But even if the probe is destroyed there would be one bright side, since the man who discovered the then planet might come to rest on it – or at least part of him.

Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, is actually traveling on the New Horizons probe, or at least one ounce of his ashes are. He gave his blessing to the mission in the 1990s, and after his death the family released the ashes to be built into an inscribed container on the spacecraft.

Hopefully though, Tombaugh and the probe he enabled will carry on past Pluto and out into the Kuiper belt that encircles the Solar System. Once out there, New Horizons could still have a few more surprises left for us yet. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • NASA to commission independent UFO study
    The truth is out there, and the space agency intends to find it – scientifically

    Over recent years, Uncle Sam has loosened its tight-lipped if not dismissive stance on UFOs, or "unidentified aerial phenomena", lest anyone think we're talking about aliens. Now, NASA is the latest body to get in on the act.

    In a statement released June 9, the space agency announced it would be commissioning a study team, starting work in the fall, to examine unidentified aerial phenomena or UAPs, which it defined as "observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena."

    NASA emphasized that the study would be from a "scientific perspective" – because "that's what we do" – and focus on "identifying available data, how best to collect future data, and how NASA can use that data to move the scientific understanding of UAPs forward."

    Continue reading
  • Meteoroid hits main mirror on James Webb Space Telescope
    Impact at the end of May bad enough to garble data, but NASA isn't worried

    The James Webb Space Telescope has barely had a chance to get to work, and it's already taken a micrometeoroid to its sensitive primary mirror.

    The NASA-built space observatory reached its final destination, the L2 orbit, a million miles away from Earth, at the end of January.

    In a statement, NASA said the impact happened some time at the end of May. Despite the impact being larger than any that NASA modeled and "beyond what the team could have tested on the ground," the space agency said the telescope continues to perform at higher-than-expected levels. The telescope has been hit on four previous occasions since launch.

    Continue reading
  • Astra fails, sends NASA's Tropics weather satellites back to Earth
    Orbital success counter stuck at 2 as upper stage of rocket shuts down early and CubeSats lost

    The first of NASA's TROPICS constellation launches came to an unscheduled end over the weekend as the Astra launch vehicle it was riding failed to deliver the cubesats to orbit.

    It was all going so well. The two cubesats lifted off atop an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at approximately 1343 EDT on June 12, 2022.

    The initial flight seemed go swimmingly, but things went wrong after the first stage had completed. Viewers of video streaming live from the rocket saw what appeared to be the start of some tumbling before the feed was abruptly cut off. NASA's California-based commercial rocket-making partner Astra confirmed that the upper stage had shut down early, dooming the payload to a considerably earlier than planned rendezvous with Earth.

    Continue reading
  • Former chip research professor jailed for not disclosing Chinese patents
    This is how Beijing illegally accesses US tech, say Feds

    The former director of the University of Arkansas’ High Density Electronics Center, a research facility that specialises in electronic packaging and multichip technology, has been jailed for a year for failing to disclose Chinese patents for his inventions.

    Professor Simon Saw-Teong Ang was in 2020 indicted for wire fraud and passport fraud, with the charges arising from what the US Department of Justice described as a failure to disclose “ties to companies and institutions in China” to the University of Arkansas or to the US government agencies for which the High Density Electronics Center conducted research under contract.

    At the time of the indictment, then assistant attorney general for national security John C. Demers described Ang’s actions as “a hallmark of the China’s targeting of research and academic collaborations within the United States in order to obtain U.S. technology illegally.” The DoJ statement about the indictment said Ang’s actions had negatively impacted NASA and the US Air Force.

    Continue reading
  • Mars helicopter needs patch to fly again after sensor failure
    NASA engineers continue to show Ingenuity as uplinking process begins

    The Mars Ingenuity helicopter is in need of a patch to work around a failed sensor before another flight can be attempted.

    The helicopter's inclinometer failed during a recommissioning effort ahead of the 29th flight. The sensor is critical as it will reposition the craft nearer to the Perseverance rover for communication purposes.

    Although not required during flight, the inclinometer (which consists of two accelerometers) is used to measure gravity prior to spin-up and takeoff. "The direction of the sensed gravity is used to determine how Ingenuity is oriented relative to the downward direction," said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter chief pilot.

    Continue reading
  • Algorithm spots 104 asteroids in huge piles of data
    Rocks stood out like a THOR thumb for code

    Researchers at The Asteroid Institute have developed a way to locate previously unknown asteroids in astronomical data, and all it took was a massive amount of cloud computing power to do it.

    Traditionally, asteroid spotters would have to build so-called tracklets of multiple night sky images taken in short succession that show a suspected minor planetoid's movement. If what's observed matches orbital calculations, congratulations: it's an asteroid. 

    Asteroid Institute scientists are finding a way around that time sink with a novel algorithm called Tracklet-less Heliocentric Orbit Recovery, or THOR, that can comb through mountains of data, make orbital predictions, transform sky images, and match it to other data points to establish asteroid identity.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022