Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New Horizons Survives Pluto Flyby, Earth Awaits First Close Encounter Pictures

Late last night, specifically at 8:52pm EDT, anxious mission controllers at NASA finally got the long-awaited radio signal confirming that New Horizons had survived its encounter with Pluto. The radio contact blackout was planned in order for the probe to its science as it passed by the former 9th planet. For NASA, this was the culmination of a 9-year flight filled with anxiety and danger. 

Traveling 3+ billion miles without mishap is no easy feat. In fact, just the act of getting off the ground is dangerous enough as a rocket launch is really no more than a controlled explosion. Once in space and traveling thousands of miles per hour, even a piece of space debris the size of a grain of rice hitting the probe at the right spot could destroy its ability to function. Those two dangers known, there was another that presented itself well after New Horizons was already into its flight: newly discovered Moons circling Pluto, which served to point out that the Kuiper Belt, in which Pluto resides, is full of potential dangers in the form of space debris.

Needless to say, mission control was holding its collective breath as close approach to Pluto became a matter of days, hours, and finally minutes.

Now, with the probe known to be alive and well, all we have to collectively do is wait for the first close pass pictures to make it back to Earth, which will take some time as not only is Pluto very distant from us, but data transmission rates are only about 2,000 bits (250 bytes) per second. For comparison, dial-up Internet access (remember that?) will transmit about 50 kilobytes per second (or about 200 times faster than the data rate from Pluto) and the slowest broadband Internet service available today is about 2 megabytes per seconds of data (or about 8000 times faster than the data rate from Pluto). End result: if you think your bandwidth stinks, NASA's download rate from Pluto is much, much worse meaning that it will take roughly the next 16 months to transmit all the data New Horizons captured during the past week, so don't expect the mission to drop out of the headlines anytime soon!

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