Published: May 4, 2011

After six years of helping operate NASA spacecraft and satellites, Andrew Poppe will receive his doctoral degree in physics from the University of Colorado Boulder on May 6.

As an undergraduate, Poppe worked in the mission operations group at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP. He wrote software to analyze data from the Space Dust Counter that was designed, tested and operated by CU-Boulder students. As a graduate student, he then directed the student-run operation beginning in 2006.

"As I was applying for graduate school I spoke with the principal investigator on the project, Professor Mihaly Horanyi, and he mentioned that he was looking for a student to run and analyze the data from the Student Dust Counter instrument," Poppe said. "It sounded like a great opportunity, so I jumped at it."

The instrument – officially named the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, or SDC, after an 11-year-old English girl who named Pluto more than 75 years ago – was launched in 2006 aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft and is headed to Pluto.

"The really nice part about working on this project is that the mission team, which consists of 70 to 80 professionals based out of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Md., and the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, always treated the students as a professional team of peers," Poppe said.

As part of his job, he was responsible for working with the other mission teams and the mission operations staff to coordinate and plan observation time, since there were several other instruments on the spacecraft vying for observation time.

"A lot of my time was spent on working through the details of how to run an instrument in deep space," Poppe said. Last fall, the dust counter broke the record for the most distant working dust detector ever to travel through space.

Dust grains in the solar system are of high interest to researchers because they are the building blocks of the solar system's planets. Scientists are particularly interested in dust that New Horizons is expected to encounter in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond Neptune's orbit that contains thousands of icy objects that are thought to contain samples of ancient material formed in the solar system billions of years ago.

Poppe is one of five students on the current SDC team and one of 32 who have worked on the instrument since the CU-Boulder project began in 2002.

"I spent a lot of time in the last year training another graduate student to take over and complete the rest of the mission to Pluto," Poppe said. "In terms of getting on my feet as an established scientist, the Student Dust Counter was invaluable because the teams I worked with treated me like a professional colleague and expected the same amount of work and diligence as any other professional. It was a great way to start my career."

Poppe recently accepted a postdoctoral position with the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Andrew Poppe