An instrument designed by University of Colorado students onboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is counting dust where no dust-counter has gone before. New Horizons, which launched Jan. 19, 2006, will be halfway to Pluto (in terms of time spent traveling) this Sunday. The spacecraft, which is carrying a total of eight scientific instruments, is expected to fly closest to Pluto on July 14, 2015.
The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) is an instrument aboard the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto, launched in 2006. As it travels to Pluto and beyond, SDC will provide information on the dust that strikes the spacecraft during its fourteen-year journey across the solar system. These observations will advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of our own solar system, as well as helping scientists study planet formation in dust disks around other stars.
Student-built instruments that fly aboard NASA missions are an important way for the scientists and engineers of tomorrow to gain experience in space missions. SDC is a “secondary science” payload; NASA placed SDC on New Horizons as a way to get additional data that did not interfere with the primary science mission for the spacecraft. NASA benefits from SDC because it provides learning opportunities for future space industry experts and gets an instrument that gathers data and helps answer scientific questions.
Funding for the SDC came primarily from the NASA New Horizons budget, through the John's Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages New Horizons; and the Southwest Research Institute, home institution of mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern. LASP has contributed funds to help pay students working on the SDC
Pioneer 10 and 11, which were the first spacecraft to travel beyond the asteroid belt and glimpse Jupiter on their way to the outer solar system-also carry dust counters, but those instruments quit working before they traveled as far as New Horizons has, according to Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission.
Despite its modest-sounding task, counting dust can teach scientists critical things about what our solar system looks like, said Stern, vice president of research and development for the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.
These tiny bodies are the building blocks of the solar system, and scientists believe that a large number of the micrometeorites have been trapped by Neptune's gravitational field as they drifted from the Edgewood-Kuiper Belt toward the sun.