Roughly three hundred days ago New Horizons flew past what used to be the ninth planet heading for scattered debris that failed to accrete into that Main Line district of the solar system, the eight planets.
A milestone of sorts was reached this week as NASA announced that the New Horizons’ spacecraft has sent back roughly half of the data it captured during its flyby of Pluto in July 2015.
Every new revelation seems to make Pluto more interesting. Instead of a dead frozen world Pluto is now known to be a geologically active center of a mini-system of five moons. Pluto is no longer an after-thought in the solar system, a curiosity, a place we should eventually explore.
Moreover Pluto is the just first Kuiper Belt Object to be explored. If Pluto is this interesting what will other Kuiper Belt Objects be like? How likely is it that Pluto proves to be the most interesting or important object in a region which may contain as many as 35,000 objects with a diameter of 60 miles or more?
Data released this week suggest that atmosphere on Pluto’s surface may be moving fast enough to create buoyancy waves. A picture of a spider like formation stretching approximately eight hundred miles in a north south direction showed the (dwarf) planet’s red subsurface material throughout its length. NASA suggests that the “spider’s” tentacles are actually stress fractures in the icy surface radiating out from some central point of geological stress.
Over the next seven or eight months we can expect to see more intriguing, puzzling and wondrous information about our nearest Kuiper Belt neighbor as the data from its brief encounter are transmitted from the New Horizons spacecraft.
NASA explains where the data are stored:
“For data storage, New Horizons carries two low-power solid-state recorders (one backup) that can hold up to 8 gigabytes each. The main processor collects, compresses, reformats, sorts and stores science and housekeeping (telemetry) data on the recorder – similar to a flash memory card for a digital camera – for transmission to Earth through the telecommunications subsystem.”
New Horizon transmits back to Earth through either a 12 inch medium gain dish or a larger 83 inch high gain antenna. With the exception of the large antenna the telecommunication system has redundancy for every component.
NASA describes the data transmission process:
“Data rates depend on spacecraft distance, the power used to send the data and the size of the antenna on the ground. For most of the mission, New Horizons has used its high-gain antenna to exchange data with the Deep Space Network’s largest antennas, 70 meters across. Even at Pluto, because New Horizons will be more than 3 billion miles from Earth and radio signals will take more than four hours to reach the spacecraft, it can send information at about 1,000 bits per second. It will take 16 months to send the full set of Pluto encounter science data back to Earth.”
New Horizons is now heading for another Kuiper Belt object a billion miles past Pluto with an expected encounter date of January, 2019.
While we are only at the very beginning of learning about the solar system, we tend to think of the solar system as the defined space relatively near-in to the Sun and occupied by the eight planets. (Alas, Pluto, no longer the ninth!)
New Horizons’ findings show that important discoveries remain to be made which will complete our understanding of what a solar system is.