Scientists monitoring NASA's New Horizons Pluto mission from Earth have gotten a major boost by receiving the last part of the data on the Pluto flyby.
The downlink sent by New Horizons was first received at NASA's Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia and later downloaded at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland on Oct. 25. The data reached Earth from the New Horizons spacecraft after traveling 3.1 billion miles. It also contained a segment of the moon Charon taken by the Ralph/LEISA imager.
"We have a pot of gold," noted APL's Alice Bowman, who was the operations manager of the mission.
Bowman said the team would review the data before giving the nod for erasing the onboard recorders of the spacecraft to yield space for new data coming from the New Horizons Kuiper Belt Extended Mission starting from Jan. 1, 2019. With this, New Horizons has sent a total of 50-plus gigabits of Pluto system data to Earth in a span of 15 months. The cameras, spectrometers, and sensors on the New Horizons spacecraft captured upfront pictures and picked up data on Pluto and its moons.
"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.
Significance Of The Mission
Already the discoveries made by New Horizons in terms of pictures and space environment data have expanded the awareness about the Pluto system and also given ample signals about what can be expected from Kuiper Belt.
The new data holds huge value as Pluto and the largest moon Charon are ice dwarfs and distinguished by solid surfaces.
Regarding the New Horizon mission's best findings on Pluto, Stern has a few picks:
- Pluto's complexity was well explained and that surpassed all expectations.
- Atmospheric hazes and lower atmospheric escape demolished previous flyby models.
- Indications of Pluto having an internal water-ice ocean was reinforced.
- More insight into Pluto's moons was delivered and it is likely they have been formed by a collision between Pluto and another planet.
- The mystery of the dark, red polar cap of Pluto's moon Charon has been explained.
Launched on Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons conducted a six-month reconnaissance flyby of Pluto in summer 2015 and made the closest approach on July 14 of the same year.