NASA Receives Last Data fom Pluto Mission

Posted by at 12:00 pm on October 31, 2016


NASA‘s New Horizons spacecraft, which captured stunning high-resolution photos of Pluto in July 2015, sent its last bits of data back to Earth this week.

The New Horizons mission offered scientists a unique opportunity to study Pluto, which was downgraded from planet status shortly after the spacecraft lifted off in 2006. Even though the journey lasted 10 years, New Horizons only once dipped within 7,800 miles of Pluto’s surface, the altitude at which most of the data and photographs needed to be taken.

The challenge was sending all that data—the final count was more than 50 gigabits—through millions of miles of outer space. NASA prioritized the stunning photos and a few datasets, which were sent home in the days just after the close approach. The bulk of the rest of the data was sent a few months later, in September 2015.

The final item—a segment of a Pluto-Charon observation sequence taken by the Ralph/LEISA imager—arrived at mission operations on Oct. 25.

“There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “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?”

Meanwhile, the spacecraft itself has fuel to keep on going for years following its Plutonian rendezvous. Its next objective is the Kuiper Belt Extended Mission, which will take it to a region of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune, which NASA believes to contain many comets and asteroids. The craft will perform a series of observations and a close encounter with a small Kuiper Belt object in January 2019.

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