Delayed Visual Gratification on Pluto, In Parts
PC Magazine says that the reason we’ve had to wait so long for high-resolution pictures of Pluto is, “in part,” because Pluto and the New Horizons craft are so far away from Earth:
“Pluto is super far away. Like waaaay super out there. It’s so far away that we’re still—months after the fact—receiving pics shots from New Horizon’s historic decade-in-the-works wassup with everyone’s favorite not-a-planet.
Part of this delayed visual gratification is due to the aforementioned gaping space divide (New Horizons is currently around 4.5 light hours from the Earth), but also because New Horizons is only now getting around to transmitting the full uncompressed snapshots from its Kuiper Belt encounter.”
It is literally true that we’ve had to wait so long to receive images from Pluto “in part” because the New Horizons probe is 4.5 light hours away from Earth. But what size are the relative “parts?”
Because signals from New Horizons are transmitted to Earth using the electromagnetic spectrum, transmitted information hurtles toward Earth at the speed of light. A distance of 4.5 light hours means that it takes transmitted information 4.5 hours to get from New Horizons to Earth. That’s part of the reason for the delay, sure.
For comparison, the total delay in images received today is 59 days * 24 hours since New Horizons hurtled by Pluto on July 14, about 1400 hours.
One part in 312 of the delay is due to distance. 311 parts out of 312 are due to other factors, what we could collectively call “processing.” The delay in images is almost entirely a computing and communications technology problem, not a distance problem.