Little Pluto and Its Big Data

Posted by Alex Slotnick on Jul 14, 2015 10:51:00 AM

The world’s scientific communities are abuzz today thanks to NASA’s New Horizons probe and its mission to Pluto, which achieved the closest approach of its flyby this morning and started collecting a wealth of new information on our solar system’s tiniest and most distant planet/not-planet. What did NASA share with us earthlings first? A picture, of course. The most glamorous profile ever recorded of Pluto, the King of the Kuiper Belt, graced the front pages of our newspapers and greeted readers with what will surely become an iconic shot. NASA knows that for the layman, nothing is quite as exciting as a spectacular photo of a celestial body, taken at a higher-resolution than ever before. With all that empty space out there a lot of people just want to know, What can we see?

But let’s not forget: New Horizon’s $700,000,000 price tag wasn’t approved just to snap a close-up for the sake of the most expensive museum gift shop posters and postage stamps of all time. The real value (and beauty!) of such a mission is the data that it collects.


For data junkies, there’s a lot about New Horizons worth considering. For instance, even though New Horizons got no closer than 7,800 miles from Pluto, and it zoomed past at over 30,000 mph, it collected so much data that NASA estimates that it’ll take fifteen months for it all to downlink back to Earth. Forget prompt analysis – we won’t even have all the data in our hands until October 2016. The total payload will be fifty times that of Mariner 4 on its 1965 Mars mission. In addition to the sheer amount of data, Pluto is 3 billion miles away from Earth, and now that its flyby is complete, the plan is for the probe to continue out into interstellar space. That’s a long way for data to travel.

Incredibly, peak transmission speed is a sluggish 1-2 kilobits per second. To put that into perspective, New Horizons’ highest resolution camera, LORRI (LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager) has a detection square that measures 1024 x 1024 pixels. Each pixel is translated into a 12-bit number – meaning each picture is a 12 million bit package, travelling over billions of miles of space. And that’s just one camera. The powerful tools on New Horizons include two cameras in addition to LORRI; REX, an antenna that takes atmospheric measurements based on how radio waves bend around surrounding gasses; SWAP, which studies solar wind; a spectrometer named PEPSSI, which records data on particles and plasmas that escape Pluto’s atmosphere; and SDC, the Student Dust Counter, which will tell us about the sorts of dust particles found in Pluto’s space.

One just has to wonder, with all that data, how is it being stored, monitored, analyzed? Now that we know what Pluto looks like to human eyes, what does it look like where it really matters: in a database? We already know NASA uses MySQL for its big data needs. Is it possible that today marks the farthest reaches of MySQL in the known universe? Probably, yes.

Photo Cred to NASA

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