It’s sad, in a way, to realize that – this week (October 25, 2016) – the New Horizons mission safely returned the last bits of science data from the Pluto flyby to Earth. The data had been stored on the spacecraft’s digital recorders since flyby in July 2015. Sad, because that mission took decades to plan and carry out, and when we will send another craft to Pluto? Likely not in my lifetime, and perhaps not in yours. Still, the scientists aren’t sad. They’re excited to have so much data in hand! As Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman at the operation center at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, said in a statement:
We have our pot of gold.
The statement said:
Having traveled from the New Horizons spacecraft over 3.1 billion miles (five hours, eight minutes at light speed), the final item – a segment of a Pluto-Charon observation sequence taken by the Ralph/LEISA imager – arrived at mission operations at [APL] at 5:48 a.m. EDT on October 25. The downlink came via NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia.
It was the last of the 50-plus total gigabits of Pluto system data transmitted to Earth by New Horizons over the past 15 months.
Because it had only one shot at its target, New Horizons was designed to gather as much data as it could, as quickly as it could – taking about 100 times more data on close approach to Pluto and its moons than it could have sent home before flying onward. The spacecraft was programmed to send select, high-priority datasets home in the days just before and after close approach, and began returning the vast amount of remaining stored data in September 2015.
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, commented:
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. There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth. 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?
Alice Bowman said the team will conduct a final data-verification review before erasing the two onboard recorders, and clearing space for new data to be taken during the next phase of New Horizons , which will include a series of distant observations of Kuiper Belt objects and a close encounter with a small Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69, on January 1, 2019.
Bottom line: As of October 25, 2016, all data from New Horizons’ July 2015 flyby of remote Pluto has been returned.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.