The New Horizons spacecraft NASA launched over a decade ago set out with a mission to fly past Pluto, and that it did in the Summer of 2015. It took a series of photographs and collected important data that allowed us to learn more about the properties of the dwarf planet’s surface and puzzling atmosphere.
Image Credit: NASA
Of course, getting that information back to Earth has been a long and drawn out process. At as much as 3.1 billion miles away from our home planet, New Horizons is very far away in space and it takes a long time for its data to get transmitted back to us; up to five hours and eight minutes, even at the speed of light.
In fact, NASA just recently announced that it had finally finished downloading all of the spacecraft’s Pluto data just at the end of last month, on October 25th at 5:48 A.M. EDT. The last piece of information to be received was an observation sequence of Pluto and its moon Charon.
In all fairness, there was a lot of data to download. The spacecraft was designed in such a way to collect as much information as it could in one fell swoop since it was a one-time shot and because we don’t get to go so deep into our solar system very often. Higher-priority information was sent back to Earth first, and then less-important data was sent afterwards.
"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," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
"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?"
Now that NASA has all of New Horizons’ information about Pluto, it’s ready to prepare for its next mission, which is to visit the little icy body from the Kuiper Belt known as 2014 KBO MU69.
To do so, NASA will perform some verification of the data it was received to ensure everything it got back is in full and legitimate, and will also prepare to erase New Horizons’ storage disks so that it can prepare to collect all new data when it gets to its new destination.
With all of Pluto’s information in hand, one can finally assume that the mission to fly past Pluto is officially complete, but the journey for New Horizons is just beginning, as space is vast.