Skip to main content

It will take a year for New Horizons to send all of its Pluto data back to Earth

It will take a year for New Horizons to send all of its Pluto data back to Earth

Share this story

It's hard to get a good internet connection on the outskirts of our solar system. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has just started its "intensive downlinking" phase, a process that will ultimately send home all of the data recorded during the craft's Pluto flyby back in July. NASA says there are "tens" of gigabytes of data on board, and it will take an entire year to transmit the information across the solar system.

That's because New Horizons can only send data at around 1–4 kilobytes per second. And even though radio waves travel at the speed of light, it takes four and a half hours for a signal to traverse the 3 billion miles between the craft and Earth, according to NASA. If you were trying to browse the web with that kind of connection, you'd have to wait hours after clicking a link before the page even started to load, and then it'd take a few minutes just to download a standard webpage. In short: you'd pull your hair out.

"It’s a treasure trove."

While we've already seen plenty of beautiful photographs of Pluto from the mission, NASA says over 95 percent of the data collected has yet to make it back to Earth. The mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern, says in a press release that the remaining data "is what we came for ... it's the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more." He added, "It’s a treasure trove."

New Horizons stopped sending back photos in late July, and since then it has been transmitting lower-bandwidth data from "energetic particle, solar wind, and space dust instruments." Now, according to plan, NASA's picking up the pace. While all the data isn't expected to arrive until October 2016, the team will post a new image every Friday, starting this week.