Students sent instrument to Pluto
They named their dust counter for the child who came up with Pluto’s name
The New Horizons spacecraft is hauling the first student-built instrument on a planetary mission. Called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, its job is to record impacts from space dust. Students at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, designed the device. And they named it for the 11-year-old girl who in 1930 suggested that Pluto would be a good name for the newfound ninth “planet.”
The Kuiper belt is a region out beyond the planets in our solar system. It’s home to a number of large rocky objects, dust and other debris orbiting the sun. Occasional collisions between Kuiper belt objects sometimes generate dust that’s gets kicked out of that zone. Some of this dust and grit may spiral towards the sun, notes Mihály Horányi. A planetary scientist, he worked with the Boulder students who developed the new device. Their new tool now measures the amount and size of these dust particles whizzing through space. This dust provides an indirect way of studying what’s orbiting beyond Neptune, Horányi explains.
Unlike all the other cameras and instruments on the New Horizons craft, the dust counter has been busy since shortly after launch. It’s been collecting data from across the entire solar system. The dust counter also will probably be the last to shut down, long after New Horizons has passed beyond the Kuiper belt. “Everything will work for decades to come,” says Horányi. Or at least as long as the power (and funding) lasts.
New Horizons got a useful instrument from the Boulder students, he says. But space science also got a cadre of researchers eager to keep exploring. “I’m very proud of these students,” says Horányi. “Their careers are just beautiful to watch.”
By the way, those students were held to the same high standards as everyone else providing instruments for the Pluto-bound mission. Horányi says his students had to “jump through exactly the same hoops.” And after routinely impressing the NASA review boards, he notes, the students’ dust counter was the first instrument to show up at the mother ship. n