Data downlink from NASA’s New Horizons begins

The New Horizons mission team that flew past the unexplored worlds of Pluto and its moons seven weeks ago is ready to begin intensive downlinking of the data collected.

Tens of gigabits of data that was stored on digital recorders is currently on its way to the team, which is estimated to take an entire year to fully complete the downlink, according to Astronomy Magazine.

“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 in Boulder, Colorado. “And what’s coming is not just the remaining 95 percent of the data that’s still aboard the spacecraft — it’s the best data sets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more. It’s a treasure-trove.”

The radio signals are moving at light speed from New Horizons, but that still means the data will take more than 4.5 hours to cover 3 billion miles in order to reach Earth.

New Horizons was sent out to gather as much information as possible, as fast as possible. Its journey included a flyby of Pluto and its many moons. The data that was collected was kept securely in digital recorders, set out to be sent to Earth in the end.

So far, New Horizons has only sent back low data-rate information since July. The data was gathered by the energetic particle, solar wind and space dust instruments. But as of September 5, the pace at which data was downlinked picked up dramatically, sending flyby images as well as other data.

The downlink phase includes science and operations data being transmitted to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) of antenna stations. This same network is used by other mission included the Voyager. Since the distance from the spacecraft to Earth is so far, the communication rate is extremely slow when you compare it to rates of high-speed internet.

“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 from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

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