New Horizons Spacecraft: An Apollo 13 Mission

According to The New York Times, at around 7:50 a.m., NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest pass by Pluto, coming within 7,800 miles of the surface. By tomorrow, the spacecraft will be mostly finished with the data-collecting phase of the mission and begin sending back information for scientists to dig into.

This didn’t come without crisis and panic. On July 4, 10 days away from the Pluto, the spacecraft vanished. The Washington Post reported, “Gone. ‘OUT OF LOCK,’ a computer screen declared. No more data, no connection at all. As if the spacecraft had plunged into a black hole. Or hit an asteroid and disintegrated. Mission Operations manager Alice Bowman called the project manager, Glen Fountain, who was spending the afternoon of July 4 at home.”

The article was a great read and goes on to explain the terrifying incident in further detail, but this part in particular caught my attention. “Because New Horizons is so far away, it takes 4 1/2 hours for a one-way message between the spacecraft and the MOC. That means whatever happened to New Horizons on July 4 had actually happened 4 1/2 hours before the people in Mission Operations knew about it. That also meant that any instructions to the spacecraft would take 4 1/2 hours to get there.”

As it turned out, the main computer on the spacecraft had gone into safe mode, which involves shutting down instruments and noncritical systems. That also involved the spacecraft automatically turning back toward Earth and going into a controlled spin of five revolutions per minute. The spinning makes navigation easier, but it also makes most scientific observations impossible. A spinning New Horizons could not take photos of Pluto. The spacecraft had been in safe mode before — but this was terrible timing. They were just days from Pluto on a mission that did not permit any wiggle room, any delays, or any do-overs, because it was a flyby.

According to The Washington Post, “The APL team had to reconfigure New Horizons the way you would rouse a drunk on a Sunday morning to get him ready for church. This required many commands, everything made slower by the nine-hour round-trip communication challenge across the 3 billion miles of space.” What catches my attention about this scenario is the fact that the lag time to reconfigure the main computer to get the spacecraft out of safe mode was just not time that anyone could afford. While things turned out ok, this was a very intense and high stress, long period of time.

As a managed services provider, we frequently see issues similar to this one.  Of course, our customer’s issues do not involve 9 and ½ year journeys to Pluto, but our servers are close by which means no lag time and less downtime. We are able to proactively monitor and back up our customers’ systems, which prevent issues like this from happening. And if issues should arise, we are able to handle them quickly.