During my keynote at the COSI All-Team meeting recently, I spoke about
our decades-long fascination with the erstwhile planet Pluto,
culminating in the recent New Horizons mission to the outer solar
system. I showed off some images beamed back from the spacecraft that
truly inspire and amaze me, featuring nitrogen plains, mountains of
water ice, and more.
Later that day Laurie Mille, Manager of Living Collections, shot me a
quick followup email, asking how New Horizons can transit images
across the vast reaches of empty interplanetary space - over 3 billion
miles, in fact - but she can't get decent cell reception in the
mountains of Vermont.
NASA and the New Horizons team have a few things going for them that
Laurie's cell phone doesn't. Like, 700 million things. Sending probes
to the furthest reaches of the solar system ain't cheap, and some of
that money is devoted to making sure that "NH phone home".
Second, Laurie's phone doesn't tap into the NASA Deep Space Network, a
collection of gigantic radio dishes and antennas dotted across the
world. Those are some pretty sensitive ears, capable of hearing even
the faintest echoes of our far-flung spacecraft.
Lastly, while the distances are impressive, the obstacles are not.
Here's NASA's problem:
Earth...........*3 billion miles of absolutely nothing*.......New Horizons
And here's Laurie's problem:
phone....../\.../\../\.../\/\/\.../\/\/\.....*a bunch more
Mountains aren't the best of friends to radio waves, so that presents
a unique challenge that's hard to engineer around. But even with all
that money, all that gear, and all that empty space, it still took
over a year for New Horizons to beam back the data from the brief