Pluto Flyby: Final Pieces Of New Horizons Data Arrive On Earth For Analysis

It almost feels like the end of an era, but the last batch of data from last year’s Pluto flyby has just been sent back to Earth from NASA’s New Horizons probe.

It did take quite a while for New Horizons to send the data back – Universe Today wrote that it took all of 15 months for the process to complete – but this was due to the considerable distance of the probe from Earth as well as the fact that it only runs on two to ten watts of electricity. This combination of great distance and low power resulted in a glacial “downlink” rate of one to four kilobits per second and a 15-month wait time for the data from the Pluto flyby to arrive successfully.

All in all, New Horizons has transmitted more than 50 gigabits of data to Earth since last year. Universe Today describes how the spacecraft was set up in such a way that it would prioritize more important batches of data and send it immediately, while sending the rest of the data beginning in September 2015.

“This is what we came for – these images, spectra and other data types that are going to help us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time,” related Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, in an earlier interview. “We’re seeing that Pluto is a scientific wonderland. The images have been just magical. It’s breathtaking.”

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The Universe Today report also noted the nature of the last item received from New Horizons, which arrived at the craft’s mission operations center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on October 25, at 5:48 a.m. EDT. The item was taken by NASA’s Ralph/LEISA imaging instrument and represents a section of a Pluto-Charon observation sequence. It was transmitted to the Johns Hopkins APL via NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia.

Currently 15 months removed from the historic Pluto flyby, New Horizons is now located more than 3.1 billion miles away from Earth. It is presently navigating a path through the Kuiper Belt, and is expected to do a close encounter flyby of an object in the area on January 1, 2019. According to the New York Times, the Kuiper Belt object is codenamed 2014 MU69 and very little is known about it aside from its small size and reddish hue. And it may take even longer for the data from that flyby to be downloaded back to Earth — the greater distance between Earth and the Kuiper Belt and the slower transmission speeds should mean a 21-month wait time for the data to arrive.

Meanwhile, officials are dealing with the aftermath of the final New Horizons data transmission from the Pluto flyby. According to APL Missions Operations Manager Alice Bowman, the New Horizons team will be reviewing the craft’s onboard recorders before scrubbing all of the data currently stored on it. That will free up much-needed space for the so-called “Kuiper Belt Extended Mission,” which, apart from the 2014 MU69 flyby, will also include other observations of distant Kuiper Belt objects.

Dwarf planet Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft
[Image by NASA/Getty Images]

With the Kuiper Belt close encounter still more than two years away, what should be most interesting in the weeks and months to come is the analysis of the data from the final transmission.

“There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth,” Stern explained. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do—after all, who knows when the next data from a spacecraft visiting Pluto will be sent?”

Indeed, it’s a bit sad that New Horizons is closing the chapter of its Pluto flyby with this week’s final batch of data. But that data has yet to be studied in depth, and the spacecraft still has another important mission ahead of it, one that extends even farther beyond the dwarf planet.

[Featured Image by NASA]