New Horizons finally finished transmitting its Pluto data

This week marked the end of an era for NASA researchers, as the space agency’s New Horizons mission transmitted the last data collected during its history-making July 2015 flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto via downlink to the Deep Space Network  facility in Canberra, Australia.

“The Pluto system data that New Horizons collected has amazed us over and over again with the beauty and complexity of Pluto and its system of moons,” principal investigator Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, explained Thursday in a press release.

“There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth,” he added. “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?”

The final data downlink comes 15 months after New Horizons completed its flyby of Pluto and its moons – a mission that saw the spacecraft travel more than 3.1 billion miles. During its pass, it collected nearly 100 times more data than it could have sent home before moving on, as it was programmed to select high-priority data first before sending the rest starting in Sept. 2015.

So what was in the spacecraft’s final data transmission?

The last data transmission consisted of a digital observation sequence of Pluto and the largest of its moons, Charon, collected by the probe’s Ralph/LEISA imager on July 14, 2015, according to GeekWire. It was sent to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, via the Canberra Deep Space Network station at 5:48am EDT last Tuesday.

In total, New Horizons sent back well over 50 gigabits of data pertaining to the Pluto system, the website added. That doesn’t sound like a lot of data, so what took so long for the probe to send it all back to Earth. The answer, as it turns out, is that the spacecraft needed to transmit information at speeds of a mere 2,000 bits per second, or roughly the same speed as a 1980s modem.

“We have our pot of gold,” said Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager from APL.

Although scientists will still need to fully analyze these newly-delivered observations, the Pluto chapter of New Horizons’ story is now officially closed. Next up for the spacecraft is a voyage to the Kuiper Belt and a flyby of a tiny, reddish-colored  Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69. That encounter is currently scheduled to begin on January 1, 2019.

“We’re excited about the exploration ahead for New Horizons, and also about what we are still discovering from Pluto flyby data,” Stern said in a statement earlier this month. “Now, with our spacecraft transmitting the last of its data from last summer’s flight through the Pluto system, we know that the next great exploration of Pluto will require another mission to be sent there.”


Image credit: NASA