NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Members of the New Horizons imaging and spectroscopy team accept the SPIE George W. Goddard Award on Aug. 9 at the society's Optics + Photonics meeting in San Diego. Image credit: SPIE
The multiorganizational team that brought the world its first close-up views of Pluto and its moons has received the 2017 George W. Goddard Award from SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.
The "optical remote sensing" (or imaging and spectroscopy) team for NASA's New Horizons mission developed and operated the optical cameras and imaging spectrographs onboard the New Horizons spacecraft to explore Pluto and the outer reaches of our solar system. After traveling more than nine years and 3 billion miles, New Horizons sped through the Pluto system in summer 2015, capturing thousands of high-resolution images and spectral and particle data – and opening the door of discovery to the wondrous region of planetary building blocks known as the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons team representatives received the award Aug. 9 at the SPIE Optics + Photonics meeting in San DiegoThe team directly includes 39 scientists and engineers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) – who manage and lead the New Horizons mission for NASA – as well as Ball Aerospace and Materion Barr Precision Optics, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, SSG Precision Optronics, Siegmund Scientific and Corning, along with many other indirect contributors.
SPIE presents the Goddard Award annually to recognize exceptional achievement in optical or photonic technology or instrumentation for Earth, planetary or astronomical science, or reconnaissance or surveillance from airborne or space platforms. The organization lauded New Horizons for pushing the boundaries of space-based optical technology by designing and developing instruments that could withstand the freezing temperatures and low-light conditions of deep space, as well as meet the breakthrough weight and power constraints needed for the voyage to Pluto.
Getting the Pictures: Diagram shows the locations of the imaging instruments – LORRI, Ralph and Alice – on the New Horizons spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
The spacecraft's full seven-instrument payload – which needs just 28 watts to operate – is the most powerful suite of instruments ever sent on a first planetary reconnaissance mission. The instruments returned stunning images and compositional spectra of Pluto's flowing nitrogen glaciers, icy mountains and dynamic atmosphere; these three instruments are the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a panchromatic high-resolution visible imager; Ralph, a visible color imager and an infrared spectral imager; and Alice, an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph.
Developed by APL, LORRI is the "eagle eyes" of New Horizons, a panchromatic high-magnification imager, consisting of a telescope with an 8.2-inch (20.8-centimeter) aperture that focuses visible light onto a charge-coupled device (CCD). It's essentially a digital camera with a large telephoto telescope – only fortified to operate in the cold, hostile environs near Pluto and beyond. "LORRI is simple to use, versatile, and highly sensitive" said APL's Hal Weaver, the New Horizons project scientist who also leads the LORRI team, "which is a great combination for a mission performing the initial reconnaissance of the Kuiper Belt."
Ralph, developed by Ball Aerospace, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and SwRI, provides both color imaging and compositional mapping capabilities for New Horizons. The instrument is so named because it's coupled with Alice in the New Horizons remote-sensing package – a reference familiar to fans of "The Honeymooners" TV show. Ralph consists of three panchromatic (black-and-white) and four color imagers inside its Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), as well as an infrared mapping spectrometer called the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). "Ralph is the spacecraft's remote-sensing powerhouse," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from SwRI in Boulder, Colorado, "delivering our color mapping and surface composition mapping capability, as well as medium-resolution geological imaging."
Developed by SwRI, Alice probed the composition and structure of Pluto's atmosphere. It consists of a compact telescope, an ultraviolet spectrograph, and a sensitive electronic detector with 1,024 spectral channels at each of 32 separate spatial locations in its long, rectangular field of view. "During the flyby, this compact and powerful instrument measured the composition and helped to determine the escape rate of of Pluto's atmosphere," said Randy Gladstone, a New Horizons scientist from Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.
Read more about the award and the team in this SPIE Professional magazine profile.
The Power of Three: This is the highest-resolution color departure shot of Pluto's receding crescent from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 14, 2015, when the spacecraft was 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers) away from Pluto. Shown in approximate true color, the picture was constructed from a mosaic of six black-and-white images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, with color added from a lower resolution Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera color image. The image is dominated by spectacular layers of blue haze in Pluto's atmosphere – which the Alice instrument probed to gather compositional data. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
As We'd Never Seen Them: A composite of enhanced color Ralph images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), taken by New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, highlights the striking differences between the pair. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon's polar red terrain and Pluto's equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute