NASA’s New Horizons Sends Back Final Data From Pluto Flyby

Oct 31, 2016 04:47 AM EDT

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has finally sent back to Earth all data gathered during its flyby of Pluto.

The final piece of flyby data includes a segment of a Pluto-Charon observation sequence taken by the Ralph/LEISA imager, which arrived at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland at 5:48 a.m. EDT on Oct. 25.

The spacecraft is now over 3.4 billion miles (5.5 billion kilometers) from Earth, which means the signals travel at the speed of light more than five hours to get from the probe to mission operations.

"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," Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.

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"There's a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth. 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?"

New Horizons had collected over 50 gigabits of data during its close encounter with Pluto -- about 100 times more than what it was capable of sending home, NASA said. The spacecraft had been programmed to send back select, high-priority datasets in the days just before and after close approach, and to begin returning the bulk of remaining stored data in September 2015.

"We have our pot of gold," Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager of APL, said in the same statement.

The New Horizons mission launched in January 2006 to get a first-ever closer look at the distant planet Pluto. The spacecraft performed the historic flyby on July 14, 2015, when it came 7,800 miles (12,550 kilometers) closer to the planet's surface.

The spacecraft is now moving toward an object called 2014 MU69 considered as one of the ancient building blocks of the solar system. New Horizons is scheduled to perform a close flyby of the object on Jan. 1, 2019 as part of the probe's Kuiper Belt extended mission (KEM).

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