New Horizons spacecraft sends back last of data from Pluto flyby

Pluto as seen by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft before the 2015 flyby.
Pluto as seen by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft before the 2015 flyby. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

More than a year after passing its target, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the last of its Pluto flyby observation data, NASA said last week.

The final observation sequence taken by New Horizons’ Pluto and Charon flyby traveled nearly 3.4 billion miles to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network in Australia. The data arrived at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland on Oct. 25, NASA said.

The spacecraft sent back more than 50 gigabits of data of the Pluto system to Earth over the past 15 months.

New Horizons collected about 100 times more data than it could send back at one time during its close approach to Pluto and its moons, getting more bang for its buck during its only shot at a flyby.

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

The spacecraft sent back high-priority data in the days around the July 2015 flyby and the remaining data in September 2015.

Missions Operations Manager Alice Bowman called the wealth of data from New Horizons “our pot of gold.”

It’s the end of one mission and beginning of another for New Horizons team already focused on a January 2019 flyby of another Kuiper Belt object.

New Horizons’ team will make a final review before clearing two onboard recorders, clearing space for new science data and images on the next leg of the mission, Bowman said.

Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 is New Horizons' next target of study. NASA approved the new mission in July.

Kuiper Belt objects are what remain from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Pluto is on the edge of the belt beyond Neptune, MU69 will be a better representation of the frozen fossils of the Kuiper Belt.

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Watch video of what it would be like to land on Pluto below:

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