New Horizons completes marathon Pluto data transfer
NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) hasreceived the final piece of data collected by the agency's New Horizons probe during its encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto,which took place July 14, 2015. Data from the New Horizons missionhas revolutionized our understanding of Pluto, revealing theplanetoid to be a surprisingly dynamic and active member of our solarsystem.
Unlike NASA's Dawn mission, which hasnow spent over a year exploring the dwarf planet Ceres, New Horizonsnever made orbit around its target.Instead, the probe had only a brief window in which to harvest asmuch information as possible, before barreling past Pluto intothe outer reaches of our solar system.
During the pass, New Horizons' meagerpower supply of only 200 watts ran a sophisticated suite of sevenscientific instruments, which worked to collect over 50 gigabits ofdata. This information was safely stored in two solid-state digitalrecorders that form part of the probe's command and data-handlingsystem.
Sending this data back to Earth wouldprove to be a lesson in patience. New Horizons began transmitting thestored data in September 2015 at a rate of around seven megabits perhour. The information was received back on Earth by NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN).
The transmission was not continuous. The natural spin of the Earth necessitated New Horizons totransmit data in eight hour stints when the DSN was available, resulting in a transfer rate of around 173 megabits per day.
Furthermore,the New Horizons team had to share the capabilities of the DSN withother exploration endeavors such as the Dawn mission, furtherfrustrating the data transmission rate.
However, slow and steady wins the race,and at 5:48 a.m. EDT on the 25th of October, over a yearafter beginning the process, the DSN station located in Canberra, Australia, relayed the final piece of Plutodata from New Horizons to the probe's mission operations center atthe Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
The last data transmission containedpart of an observation sequence of Pluto and its large moon Charon,as captured by the spacecraft's Ralph/LEISA imager.
"The Pluto system data that NewHorizons collected has amazed us over and over again with the beautyand complexity of Pluto and its system of moons," comments AlanStern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest ResearchInstitute in Boulder, Colorado. "There's a great deal of workahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations thathave all been sent to Earth. And that's exactly what we're goingto do –after all, who knows when the next data from a spacecraftvisiting Pluto will be sent?"