April 27, 2015

New Horizons’ Student Instrument Turning Deep Space Dust to Data about Pluto’s Environment

First Color Image of Ralph

The Student Dust Counter, with “on” periods marked in red, has more operational time than any other instrument in the New Horizons science payload.

The flux of interplanetary dust particles recorded by the Student Dust Counter, placed over computer model predictions of what SDC should have found – and should still find – according to current models.

Know how college students barely sleep? One science instrument on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft built by University of Colorado students – the aptly named Student Dust Counter (or SDC) – shares that habit.

While most of the New Horizons payload “rested” in low-power hibernation through much of New Horizons’ 3-billion-mile, 9-year voyage to Pluto, the SDC, by design, was on and operating. The instrument is an impact detector that measures the electrical charge tiny dust particles generate when they strike its surface. SDC is the first instrument in deep space that was designed, built and operated by students, and the first ever dedicated dust instrument to make such measurements beyond 18 astronomical units from the Sun.

“It is the highlight of my career as an educator to have been able to offer an incredible opportunity to students to work on the SDC project, and as a researcher to contribute to our exploration of the uncharted far reaches of the solar system,” said Mihaly Horanyi, SDC principal investigator from the University of Colorado, Boulder. “I’m elated by the SDC observations to date and what they will continue to tell us about the Kuiper Belt.”

Scientists have combined SDC data, observations from the 1970s-era Pioneer 10 spacecraft, and theoretical modeling of the dynamics of inward migrating small dust particles to estimate the total dust production rate in the Kuiper Belt – the vast third zone of the solar system where Pluto resides. The result: they estimate about 2 million kilograms of dust grains in the size range of 0.1 to 10 micrometers, orbit in the Kuiper Belt.

SDC on spacecraft

“The Student Dust Counter aboard New Horizons has been a pioneer for student-built instruments aboard NASA planetary exploration missions, and at the same time, it’s doing pioneering science at the very frontier of our solar system, near where Pluto orbits” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. “I'm really looking forward to seeing what it reveals next, when we’re close to Pluto in July.”

After New Horizons passes Pluto, SDC will continue mapping the dust density distribution in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt. These measurements will provide an opportunity to learn about the distribution of unseen Kuiper Belt objects, as the density of the relatively short-lived tiny dust particles traces the distribution of their parent bodies.

Learn more about the SDC here.


Did you know? The instrument’s full name is the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, dedicated to the girl who first suggested the name “Pluto” for the newly discovered planet in 1930. Read about it here.