Last Saturday, New Horizons started the long process of sending back all of the data collected during its July orbit of the Pluto system. The probe was initially launched in January 2006 to make its journey to study Pluto, its moons, and the Kuiper belt via flybys. New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers program and was built primarily by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.
New Horizons is equipped with two solid state recorders that collect, compress, reformat, sort, and store all of its data. The craft's "brain," so to speak, is a 12 megahertz MIPs-based Mongoose V processor, which "distributes operating commands to each subsystem, collects and processes instrument data, and sequences information sent back to Earth." In addition, the processor runs an advanced autonomy algorithm that allows New Horizons to correct any issues that arise or signal for help from its operators on Earth. As we've reported on DZone, an earlier version of the processor, the MIPS R3000, also powered the first Playstation consoles.
On July 14 of this year, it became the first spacecraft to reach and explore the former planet, flying 7,800 miles above its surface. As reported by Wired, the probe's current distance from Earth is so vast, approximately 93 million miles as of the time this article was written, that the data it's sending back will come at a "rate of around 1 to 4 kilobits per second."
Such information will include spectra and atmospheric readings as well as high resolution images of Pluto's surface, revealing a frozen landscape with complex geographical features that had, until now, been unseen. These features include the possibility of dunes, nitrogen flows that may have "oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains," valleys, and mountains.
"Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system," Alan Stern, the principal investigator from SwRI, said in a statement released by NASA.
In addition, NASA reports that Pluto's atmospheric "haze" has several layers which create a "twilight effect" around sunset.
“This bonus twilight view is a wonderful gift that Pluto has handed to us,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from SwRI. “Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see.”
According to Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory's site, it will be sixteen months before we receive all of the information.
To check out more images, read NASA's press release here.