New Horizons has begun sending back the remaining 95% of data from its July 14 flyby of Pluto, which is expected to take about a year. Until now, only a few images and datasets had been sent back, but that’s all due to change as it enters into this intensive downlink phase.
In total, tens of gigabits worth of data will be sent back to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) at a sluggish speed of 1 to 4 kilobits per second. As New Horizons is so far from Earth, more than 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers), it also takes more than 4.5 hours for radio signals from the spacecraft to make it home.
This, though, is what mission scientists have been waiting for. On board the spacecraft are incredible high-resolution images of Pluto and its moon Charon, in addition to instrument readings from its flyby. While the data will take about a year to send home, its true scientific value may not be known for many more years, perhaps decades.
"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," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement. "And what’s coming is not just the remaining 95% 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."
The downlink began on Saturday, September 5, with the latest images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) expected on Friday, September 11. New, raw and unprocessed images will be posted on the New Horizons project website every Friday.
"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," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in the statement.
New Horizons itself is continuing to travel out of the Solar System, and last week it was revealed that a new object had been picked for it to visit in the Kuiper Belt by 2019.