The New Horizons spacecraft fell silent yesterday (Jan. 4), but the communications pause is expected, and scientists on the mission will have plenty of data to keep them busy during the intermission, mission staff members said during a news conference held Jan. 3.
The data blackout will last for about five days, mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute said during the event, which was held to publicize new discoveries about the Kuiper Belt object the probe just visited, called 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule. The spacecraft is due to begin transmitting again on Jan. 10.
The intermission was triggered by the spacecraft's present location on the far side of the sun, which produces interference that prevents data transmission back to Earth via radio waves. (This isn't a unique problem; the Parker Solar Probe, although billions of miles away from New Horizons, experiences download breaks for precisely the same reason.)
Once New Horizons and the sun align more favorably, the data dump will resume — although it won't be fast. All told, it will take about 20 months for all the data currently trapped on the probe to be sent back down to Earth. That data includes "literally hundreds of images and spectra and other data types," Stern promised.
But just because there's no new data coming in doesn't mean the scientists will be twiddling their thumbs. "Even while the spacecraft is behind the sun, the science team will continue to work on the data we have," Stern said during the news conference.
The group will reunite in about two weeks, after transmission begins again, to review what they've found in the dataalready on Earth and in the first data down after the blackout. "I expect there will be some pretty good news, so you'll be hearing from us again in a little over two weeks with those additions to what we've already learned about this wondrous place," Stern said.