It only took more than a year, but the New Horizons spacecraft has sent the last slivers of data back home. A portion of a Pluto-Charon observation traveled a staggering 3.1 billion miles to the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The downlink was received at NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia before being sent halfway across the world to Maryland.
One of the Canberra DSN dishes shrouded in fog.
3.1 billion miles is a staggering distance. Even at the speed of light, it would still equal the round-trip commute for some folks – five hours, eight minutes at light speed according to the post announcing New Horizons’ final Pluto encounter transmission.
New Horizons’ work on Pluto might be done, but for scientists back on Earth? Far from it.
“There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth,” says New Horizons boss Alan Stern. “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?”
It will be a while. Right now, there are no missions planned for Pluto. That will change in the future, but there’s no telling when NASA (or another agency) will greenlight a mission. Even if one is approved, it took New Horizons nine years to reach the dwarf planet.
New Horizons’ trove of data from its Pluto flyby is the best we’re going to get for at least a decade or longer.
The good news for us (and scientists) is New Horizons hit a home run. “We have our pot of gold,” said Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman.
The New Horizons team designed the hardy spacecraft to grab as much data at its closest approach as it possibly could. “Taking about 100 times more data on close approach to Pluto and its moons than it could have sent home before flying onward,” reads the article.
Public outreach was another critical component for the New Horizons team. That’s why they programmed the spacecraft to send some of the best data to Earth first. The first images of the spacecraft’s close encounter showed a stunning little world. The gray, drab world most of us envisioned gave way to a spectacular world full of flat plains, icy peaks and nitrogen ice glaciers.
New Horizons work with Pluto might be complete, but its mission goes on. The team will do a final data verification review before erasing the two onboard recorders to clear space for the spacecraft’s next encounter. A date with the small Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on New Year’s Day 2019.