If you liked the first historic images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, you’ll love what’s to come.
Seven weeks after New Horizons sped past the Pluto system to study Pluto and its moons – previously unexplored worlds – the mission team will begin intensive downlinking of the tens of gigabits of data the spacecraft collected and stored on its digital recorders. The entire downlink, which moved into high gear on 5 September, will take about one year to complete.
“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,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “And what’s coming is not just the remaining 95 per cent of the data that’s still aboard the spacecraft – it’s the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more. It’s a treasure trove.”
Even moving at light speed, the radio signals from New Horizons containing data need more than 4.5 hours to cover the 3 billion miles to reach Earth.
As a flyby mission, New Horizons was designed to gather as much information as it could, as quickly as it could, as it sped past Pluto and its family of moons – then store its wealth of data to its digital recorders for later transmission to Earth. Since late July, New Horizons has only been sending back lower data-rate information collected by the energetic particle, solar wind and space dust instruments.
During the data downlink phase, the spacecraft transmits science and operations data to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) of antenna stations, which also provide services to other missions, like Voyager. The spacecraft’s distance from Earth slows communication rates, especially compared to rates offered by today’s high-speed Internet providers. With New Horizons past Pluto, the typical downlink rate is approximately one to four kilobits per second, depending on how the data is sent and which DSN is receiving it.
“The New Horizons mission has required patience for many years, but from the small amount of data we saw around the Pluto flyby, we know the results to come will be well worth the wait,” says Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
The team also plans to continue posting new, unprocessed pictures from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the New Horizons project website each Friday. The images will be made available here with the next LORRI set is scheduled for posting on 11 September.