Friday, August 21, 2015

Latency, bandwidth and Pluto

As you may well know, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto last month, dramatically increasing our knowledge of Pluto and its moons (let's not even get into whether Pluto and Charon jointly constitute a "binary dwarf planet" or whatever).  There are even a few pictures on the web.

But wait ... that's not very many pictures for a ten-year mission.  Even worse, if you were watching at the time you'll know that New Horizons went completely dark for most of a day, right when it was flying by Pluto.  Isn't this the modern web, where everything is available everywhere instantly?  What gives, NASA?

Part of the problem is the way New Horizons is designed.  It's expensive to accelerate mass to the speed New Horizons is going, and since you can't exactly send a repair crew out to Pluto, it's good to have as few moving parts as possible.  As a result, the ship has a small battery and both the antenna and the cameras are mounted firmly in place.  If you want to turn the antenna toward Earth, you have to move the whole ship, using some of the small store of remaining fuel dedicated to course corrections and attitude control.  If you want to point the cameras toward Pluto, you have to turn the ship that way.  You can't do both.

That explains why the ship went dark for the duration of the flyby, but actually it effectively went dark for considerably longer than that.  It takes about 4.5 hours for a signal to travel the distance between Earth and Pluto.  That means the sequence of events is, more or less
  • t + 0: Flight control sends commands to New Horizons to point the cameras at Pluto, take pictures, orient the antenna toward Earth, and report back.
  • t + 4.5 hours: New Horizons gets the command and starts re-orienting and taking pictures
  • t + 9 hours: Last time at which any signal from before the pointing operation will reach Earth
  • t + 25.5 hours (more or less): New horizons, now with the antenna pointed back toward earth, sends "Phone home" message reporting status.
  • t + 30 hours (more or less): "Phone home" message arrives
The important thing to note here is that, while the ship is actually out of contact for 21 hours, it's 25.5 hours from the time the command is sent to the time the ship is reachable again, and 30 hours before the ground crew knows it's reachable again.   If the phone home signal hadn't arrived, it would be 9 more hours, at a minimum, before they knew if any corrective action they'd taken had worked.  By internet standards this is ridiculously high latency, but anyone who's played a laggy video game or been on a conference call with people on the opposite side of the world has experienced the same problem on a smaller scale.

So part of the reason pictures have been slow in coming is latency.  It's going to take a minimum of 4.5 hours to beam anything back, and longer if the ground crew has to send instructions.

The other problem is bandwidth.  Pluto is about 5 billion kilometers (about 3 billion miles) away.  Signal strength drops off as the square of the distance, so, for example, a signal from Pluto is about 160 times weaker than a signal from Mars and, since the power source has to be small, it's not going to be extremely powerful to start with.  Lower power means a lower signal to noise ratio and less bandwidth (or at least that's my dim software-engineer understanding of it -- in real life "bandwidth" doesn't exactly mean "how many bits you can transmit", and I'm sure there's lots more I'm glossing over).

Put all that together and on a good day we have about 2Kbps coming back from Pluto.  That's about what you could get out of a modem in the mid 1980s.   Internet technology has progressed just a bit since then, but internet technology doesn't have to cope with vast distances and stringent mass limitations.  At 2Kbps, one raw image from LORRI (the hi-res black-and-white camera) takes close to two hours to transmit.  This is why, if all goes well, we'll be getting Pluto pictures (and other data) well into 2016.

I'd still say that New Horizons is "on the web" in some meaningful sense, but the high latency and low bandwidth make it a great example of Deutsch's fallacies in action.

[Update: Not only is New Horizons sending back data slowly, it's not sending back particularly pretty data at the moment.  From their main page:
Why hasn’t this website included any new images from New Horizons since July? As planned, New Horizons itself is on a bit of a post-flyby break, currently sending back lower data-rate information collected by the energetic particle, solar wind and space dust instruments. It will resume sending flyby images and other data in early September.
-- D.H. 24 Aug 2015]

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