Data on the Horizons…and Horizon

It’s getting closer to that time of the year when we start reading about the biggest events that transpired during the past 12 months. Sure, we haven’t entered the month of December yet, but holiday lights and decorations are on the shelves, so why not talk about one of the biggest events and its associated data even before 2015 ends?

Although NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was launched January 19, 2006, it qualifies as one of the biggest events of 2015. That’s because its six-month flyby of Pluto didn’t occur until July 14 of this year. That’s not surprising, considering that Pluto is 2.66 billion miles away from Earth (when the two planets are closest). That’s a long, loooong way away. To help put things in perspective, the Earth’s moon is 238,900 away. Pluto is 11,000 times further away from us!

Just how important is the New Horizons mission? The National Academy of Sciences has ranked this space mission as the highest priority for solar system exploration. Its purpose is to understand where Pluto and its moons fit in with the other objects in our solar system, according to NASA.

Even though New Horizons didn’t do its flyby of Pluto until this year doesn’t mean important science wasn’t happening before then. About a year after its launch in February 2007, New Horizons did a flyby of Jupiter, gathering all sorts of important data, including about the planet’s great storm systems and why they change colors. And from the start of its mission, the New Horizons spacecraft began collecting and storing data on its two 32-gigabit (“bit” not “byte”) hard drives.

About two months after New Horizons passed Pluto and its moons, the mission team back on Earth began downloading the tens of gigabits the spacecraft collected and stored on its digital recorders. The download, which started in September, will take about 16 months to complete. That’s because even though the radio signals that contain the data are moving at light speed, it takes 4 ½ hours to reach the Earth.

When you’re talking about 4 ½ hours, you’re talking about a lot of time, at least by Earth’s standards, especially if you’re talking download time. 4 ½ hours…270 minutes. That’s no New York minute! You can watch a couple of movies in 4 ½ hours. With the New Horizons transmitting at 1 KB per second, it kind of makes it hard to complain about today’s high-speed Internet speeds, even when they’re slow. If it took that long to download your favorite movie, you might break out the Scrabble board instead. Or if you’re patient, your Friday data night might actually work its way into Saturday, which might not be a bad thing, depending on how well you’re getting along with your date.

With the new year just around the corner, now is as good a time as any to look back at all of the big events of 2015 and consider how much we rely on technology, and how easy—and fast!—it is to download, access, store, forward, and receive the data that makes our world go around. With the ever-increasing speed at which we’re creating data these days, you can only wonder what’s on the horizon.