Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
A year before the New Horizons spacecraft was schedule to fly by the dwarf planet Pluto in July 2015, NASA awakened it from its scheduled hibernation for equipment checkout and trajectory tracking. During the systems check of the LORRI long-range visible-spectrum camera, the scientists received a hint of something very strange. There appeared to be a faint object between Pluto and Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. At first, scientist speculated that it must be an optical illusion created by one of Pluto’s other three known moons, Nix, Hydra, or the recently discovered S/2011. But those moons were all accounted for. One of the specialists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory suggested that the object was a fifth moon trapped in Pluto’s L-1 Lagrangian point. Later, an imaging specialist from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center suggested that a geyser-like volcano had erupted on the face of Charon that was facing Pluto, and that the ice particle fountain was responsible for the faint object. The debate came to an abrupt end when all communications with the New Horizons spacecraft was inexplicably lost.
By and large, scientists working for NASA expect to encounter occasional ‘glitches’ in lengthy space missions, so there was no immediate panic. The mission commander simply pulled out the Troubleshooting Manual and began a meticulous process of fault tree analysis. However, it quickly became clear that this was no ordinary glitch. The New Horizons spacecraft was equipped with dual redundant transmitters and receivers. In addition to the high-gain antenna, the spacecraft had two low-gain antennas and a medium-gain dish. It was inconceivable that there could be simultaneous failures in all of the communication systems. Suspicion was subsequently directed at the ships two flight computers. Again, built-in redundancy provided for independent Command and Data Handling systems. Eventually, extensive testing of identical earth-based flight computers eliminated any design and programming anomalies. Finally, as the months passed, it was becoming increasing probable that the New Horizons spacecraft had been impacted by a rogue Kuiper Belt object.
Just as all hope was being lost, communication was reestablished through the aft low-gain antenna, which had only been used during near earth phases of the mission. With only a month to flyby, the team began an exhaustive effort of rebooting and reprogramming the spacecraft. Progress was slow due to the nine hour round trip latency, but two days out, the spacecraft returned from the dead.
When the cameras were once again focused on Pluto, it was suddenly apparent that Pluto was not an ice cover rock. It was artificial, and apparently teaming with life. Thousands of small artifacts buzzed around Pluto like a halo of giant space-bees surrounding a hive. The faint object between Pluto and Charon turned out to be a 17,500 kilometer long tether, locking the two objects together as they swung around their common center of gravity every 6.4 days, presumably in an effort to create artificial gravity. The PERSI near-infrared imaging spectrometer revealed that Charon was significantly hotter than Pluto, suggesting that it was a power plant supplying Pluto’s inhabitants with life sustaining energy. Nix and Hydra were donut shaped satellites with diameters larger than 100 kilometers. “I guess Dr. Tyson was right after all,” remarked an analyst. “Pluto isn’t a planet.”
As the New horizon neared closest approach, the tiny ‘moon’ S/2011 left orbit and flew toward the spacecraft. As it neared, it became obvious that S/2011 was a large spacecraft. When it was approximately ten kilometers away, a bright light flashed in one of its three nacelles, and the New Horizon spacecraft went dark for a second time.
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