Interplanetary download times, then and now

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of this week refreshing various NASA social-media feeds to see the latest pictures from Pluto.

Voyager Neptune image

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2 on August 14, 1989.

New Horizons Pluto image

Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 13, 2015.

Beyond the ongoing amazement that with less than half a penny of every federal dollar, NASA has taken our senses further into the solar system than anybody else in history, this has gotten me thinking of the last times we explored a planet for the first time.

When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus and then Neptune in 1986 and 1989, my download time to see color photos of either planet for longer than a brief spot on the evening news could span months. The New York Times was a black-and-white production, so I would have to wait for the inevitable National Geographic cover story that I would then read and re-read obsessively.

When the Web came around years later, it did not take me long to realize that magazine production cycles and the U.S. Postal Service would never again limit my ability to geek out over pictures taken by robot spacecraft billions of miles away.

And now we’re outright spoiled–I cannot keep track of the image catalogs maintained by various NASA centers. But to see full-resolution copies of the images captured by New Horizons this week, we will have to wait even longer than we did in 1986 and 1989: At 1,000 bits per second, the maximum bit rate available from 2.97 billion miles away, it will take 16 months to get a complete set of the spacecraft’s observations.

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