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After a 9-Year Voyage, New Horizons Will Have Little Time to Measure Pluto’s Atmosphere

The brief encounter will generate so much data it’ll take more than a year to send it all back

4 min read
After a 9-Year Voyage, New Horizons Will Have Little Time to Measure Pluto’s Atmosphere
Long Way From Home: New Horizons will use radio waves from Earth to analyze Pluto’s atmosphere.
Illustration: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In a few short weeks, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft will finish a long, lonely trek through the outer solar system and zip past Pluto. It will gather the first close-up views of the erstwhile ninth planet and examine, among other things, Pluto’s thin atmosphere by measuring sunlight and radio waves that pass through it.

The 14 July encounter has been a long time in the making. It has taken New Horizons more than nine years to make its way from Earth to Pluto, which was demoted and reclassified by the International Astronomical Union as a “dwarf planet” while the spacecraft was en route.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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