The New Horizons spacecraft made a successful flyby of Pluto this morning after a nine-year, 3 billion-mile-journey, sending a thumbs-up signal to Earth tonight and elating the world’s space science community, including CU Boulder participants.
The spacecraft has been beaming back both dazzling and puzzling images of Pluto’s surface in recent days, including features that resemble whales, hearts and donuts. New Horizons is traveling at mind-bending 750,000 miles a day. Images from closest approach this morning, which will be unveiled tomorrow after the data are downloaded, were taken from roughly 7,700 miles above Pluto’s surface.
A signal sent to Earth from New Horizons tonight during a 15-minute window that began about 6:45 p.m. MDT indicated the spacecraft is in good health, said New Horizons chief scientist Alan Stern, who received his doctorate from CU Boulder in 1989. New Horizons is now speeding into the Kuiper Belt, a region spanning more than a billion miles past Neptune’s orbit and believed to harbor thousands of moon-sized objects and billions of comets.
“We did it!” said CU Boulder Professor Fran Bagenal, a New Horizons co-investigator who leads the New Horizons Particles and Plasma Team and is a faculty member in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “We’ve been waiting nearly a decade, but as everyone can see, it certainly was worth the effort.”
“This is best news we could get, of course,” said CU Boulder physics Professor Mihaly Horanyi of CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, who led a team of students that designed and built the Student Dust Counter instrument for New Horizons, which launched in 2006. “I’m sure a lot of the former students on this project who have gone on to do other things in their lives are looking on proudly at New Horizons tonight.”
The data from New Horizons is being beamed back to the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where the spacecraft was designed, built and is operated for NASA. Hundreds of current and former New Horizons participants -- including CU Boulder doctoral students Jamey Szalay and Marcus Piquette and former doctoral student David James -- were on hand to applaud the news of the contact signal.
A revolving cast of more than 20 students worked on the SDC for New Horizons, designing and developing the instrument between 2002 and 2005, said Horanyi. Szalay and Piquette are currently measuring and analyzing solar system dust particles, remnants of collisions between solar system bodies.
The dust counter is a thin plastic film resting on a honeycombed aluminum structure the size of a cake pan mounted on the spacecraft’s exterior. A small electronic box functions as the instrument’s “brain” to assess each individual dust particle that strikes the detector.
“Our instrument has been plowing through our solar system’s dust disk and gathering data since launch,” said Szalay. “The measurements tell us about the evolution of our solar system and will help us understand how other solar systems billions and billions of miles away may look.
“We’re thrilled to have reached Pluto, and we can’t wait to journey into the heart of the Kuiper Belt to learn what’s out there.”