Student team hopes to fly equipment on Pluto mission
Posted: September 25, 2002

A group of students from the University of Colorado at Boulder has designed a unique concept to observe dust grains in space that they hope to fly on NASA's mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, a collection of ancient, icy objects located beyond Neptune.

NASA selected a mission known as New Horizons last year to design and build the Pluto craft for a 2006 launch. Spurred by a recent National Research Council survey identifying the Pluto mission as the top-rated project in the newly revamped outer planets exploration program called New Frontiers, the U.S. Senate recommended in July that New Horizons be the first mission launched in the program.

If launched in 2006 as originally planned, New Horizons would fly by Pluto and its moon, Charon, as early as 2015. It then would explore multiple objects in the Kuiper Belt starting about 2017.

According to physics Associate Professor Mihaly Horanyi of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, there are tens of thousands of Kuiper Belt objects. Known as KBOs, each contains samples of the ancient material used to form our solar system, including Earth, said Horanyi, faculty mentor for the CU student project.

The CU student team wants to fly a dust counter into the Kuiper Belt aboard New Horizons in order to measure the density of dust particles chipped off the KBOs as they continually collide with each other on the edge of the solar system, said Horanyi.

The proposal by the students is a fan-shaped dust detector with a radius of about 16 inches and thickness of only about one-eighth of an inch, said CU-Boulder master's degree student Gene Holland of aerospace engineering, the student project manager for the Student Dust Counter. The roughly four-pound, honeycombed aluminum structure covered with a thin, plastic-like film would be mounted to the forward-facing side of the spacecraft in flight, he said.

"The recent National Research Council's Decadal Survey for Planetary Science recommended a device like this to fly on the New Horizons mission," said LASP Director Daniel Baker, who noted the CU student team had been designing and working on an interplanetary dust counter for nearly two years. "Since New Horizons had no plans to fly such a device, we thought our students might be able to build theirs as an extra educational component of the mission."

Baker said the New Horizons team was receptive to the idea, and is hoping to request permission from NASA in October to add the student-built payload to the mission.

"The SDC could tell us a lot about the structure and early formation of our solar system, including its planets," said LASP's Horanyi. "More importantly, the students would be responsible for the design, construction and testing of the device, data analysis and archiving during the mission, and outreach efforts to K-12 schools and colleges across the nation over two decades to encourage interest in the space sciences."

Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute's Department of Space Studies in Boulder, chief scientist of New Horizons and one of the world's experts on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, is enthusiastic about the student proposal. "I think the University of Colorado Student Dust Counter device could be a terrific addition to the New Horizons mission, particularly its educational and public outreach component," he said.

"Students have never before built and flown a research, education and outreach device for a NASA deep space mission," said Stern. "The excitement this proposal is generating is amazing."

Microscopic-sized space-dust particles hitting the disc would create unique electrical signals, allowing the students to infer the mass and speed of each particle, said Holland. "We expect thousands of hits from these dust particles during the lifetime of the spacecraft as it flies by Pluto and into the Kuiper Belt if the proposal is accepted," Holland said.

The current SDC student team consists of Holland, a junior aerospace engineering student Ervin Krauss and graduate students Chelsey Bryant of aerospace engineering and Anselm Fernandez of electrical engineering. If the device is approved by NASA, the team would expand to include a number of additional CU-Boulder students.

"Students enrolled at CU-Boulder from 2006 to perhaps 2020 or even later would operate the instrument and collect the data," said Holland.

The team also would share its experiences in instrument design with others across the nation over the Web, and make all of the SDC data collected during the mission available online to K-12 students, universities and the general public, said Holland.

"It is a great opportunity to have students involved in a cutting-edge science mission," said Horanyi, who specializes in the study of space dust. "If the student project flies on the mission, we hope the generations of student teams who worked on the project through its lifetime would return to LASP for a reunion of sorts when the spacecraft reaches Pluto and the Kuiper Belt."

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