Scientists on Earth are now in possession of all the scientific data collected by NASA’s New Horizons probe during the Pluto flyby conducted last year.
This week, the last of the data collected and beamed back by the spacecraft was downloaded by engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., mission headquarters.
“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,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator and a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a news release.
“We have our pot of gold,” added Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager at APL.
New Horizons scientists have been fielding Pluto flyby data nearly nonstop for the last 15 months. The last bit of data took just over five hours to reach NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia, before being downloaded at APL.
New Horizons probe has speeding farther and farther from Earth since it passed by Pluto in 2015. The last bit of data traveled more than 3.1 billion miles. At such great distances, the probe can only transmit a little bit of data at a time.
Bigger bundles of high-priority data were delivered before and after the flyby, but the rest — more than 50 gigabits worth — has arrived in the form of a slow, steady trickle.
The final download includes observations of Pluto and its moon Charon captured by the probe’s Ralph/LEISA imager.
Once researchers have verified the newly delivered data is intact and uncorrupted, researchers will delete the probe’s storage drives — making room for new data collection. New Horizons is on course to explore several Kuiper belt objects beginning in 2019.
Until then, scientists will keep busy with the latest Pluto observations.
“There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth,” Stern said. “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?”
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