Published: Sept. 1, 2015 By


At mission control, CU contingent shares moment of triumph

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft left Earth for Pluto in 2006, Jamey Szalay (PhDPhys’15) was in high school.

At 7:50 a.m. EST on July 14, 2015, as the spacecraft traveled within a cosmic breath of Pluto’s surface, he was a physicist with a stake in the mission.

“That was a pretty big moment for us,” says Szalay, a CU-Boulder doctoral candidate who has led data analysis for the Student Dust Counter, one of CU’s many contributions to the historic space voyage. The student-built device helps analyze space’s composition.

Scores of CU students, faculty, alumni and staff have participated in the decade-long mission, in which a spacecraft reached Pluto for the first time, then kept going.

Szalay, 27, was part of a CU contingent camped at mission control in Maryland in the days leading up to a series of climactic moments. Compatriots included fellow dust counter experts Marcus Piquette, also a student, and faculty physicist Mihaly Horanyi, who oversaw the project.

Celebrations began when the spacecraft was believed to be closest to Pluto’s surface, about 7,800 miles distant. They reignited with definitive word from New Horizons 14 hours later.

“That was the moment of relief,” says Szalay. “It was a big hold-your-breath until the spacecraft talks to you.”

Front and center throughout the triumph was Alan Stern (PhDAstro’89), chief mission scientist and the subject of the summer Coloradan’s cover story, “Voyage to Pluto.

Like Szalay, Stern was having the time of his life.

“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined that this could have been a better toy store,” he said July 15, referring to the initial scientific bounty.

Indeed, New Horizons has already offered tantalizing new details about Pluto: It’s geologically active and has grand mountain ranges, plus a vast region shaped like a giant Valentine’s Day heart.

There’s still plenty for scientists to do: It will take about 16 months for the spacecraft to send all its new observations to Earth. Analyzing the data will take years — music to Szalay’s ears.

“Nothing trumps space science,” he says.

Photography courtesy NASA