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Students Join Pluto Mission
Students Join Pluto Mission
17 Dec 2002
(Source: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

Michael Buckley (Applied Physics Laboratory)
(240) 228-7536 or (443) 778-7536

It's a 20-year homework assignment, but you won't hear any complaints from the students handed the task.

A special instrument, called the Student Dust Counter, has been added to NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Designed by students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the device will detect dust grains produced by collisions between asteroids, comets and Kuiper Belt objects during New Horizons' journey. It would be the first science instrument on a NASA planetary mission to be designed, built and "flown" by students.

With faculty supervision, University of Colorado students will also distribute and archive data from the instrument, and lead a comprehensive education and outreach effort to bring their results and experiences to classrooms of all grades over the next two decades. Students in schools and universities nationwide will be able to share in both the development of the instrument and analysis of its data.

"The Student Dust Counter is an incredibly exciting addition to our mission," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, director of the Southwest Research Institute's Space Studies Department in Boulder. "Not only will it give us the most detailed accounting yet of dust particle concentrations in the outer solar system, it will offer generations of students a real, hands-on role in a pioneering NASA space mission. I am thrilled that NASA's Office of Space Science approved this addition to New Horizons and I hope it opens the door to student-led experiments on more missions."

Now in preliminary design, New Horizons is planning for launch in 2006 or 2007, a swing past Jupiter, and an encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon, as early as July 2015. In the following years it will explore from one to three icy, rocky mini-worlds in the Kuiper Belt, billions of miles beyond Neptune's orbit. The nuclear-powered probe's payload includes cameras and sensors for imaging the surfaces of Pluto, Charon and Kuiper Belt objects, mapping their compositions and temperatures, and studying Pluto's complex atmosphere in detail.

Though the dust counter is part of the mission's education and public outreach program - rather than the main science payload - it will in fact contribute significant science. Because no dust detector has ever flown beyond 18 astronomical units from the Sun (nearly 1.7 billion miles, about the distance of Uranus), the Student Dust Counter's data may be as valuable to researchers as the project's outreach focus is to students.

"Those measurements will give us a better handle on the sources and transport of dust in the solar system," says New Horizons Project Scientist Dr. Andrew Cheng, of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

First proposed to the New Horizons team last spring, the Student Dust Counter underwent a successful design review in October. NASA approved the project in November and the instrument is set for another, more detailed review next spring. Like New Horizons' other six instruments, the Student Dust Counter must be completed by summer 2004 for installation on the spacecraft and rigorous testing.

"We have our work cut out for us," says Gene Holland, an aerospace engineering graduate student at the University of Colorado and the instrument's student project manager. "But at the same time, that's what makes the project so exciting. We have a lot of responsibility on a major space mission. The students feel like what they're doing will make a real difference."

Now that NASA has approved the dust counter's addition to the spacecraft, Holland says the team designing and building the device will expand from four to nearly 20 graduate and undergraduate members. It will include engineering and science students - of course - and others studying for careers in business, education and communications. "We want to involve students in every aspect of this project," Stern says. "This is a multi-generational student experiment. The current team will build it, but future generations will operate it, analyze the data and publish results."

And they're ready to get started.

"The students are jumping up and down about this - they can't wait to get involved," says Dr. Fran Bagenal, a professor in the University of Colorado Department of Astrophysical, Planetary & Atmospheric Sciences and the science leader on the New Horizons education-public outreach team. "They are going to build it, they are going to examine the data, and they are going to tell other students how this works and why this is so cool. They have a unique opportunity to both educate and inspire the students who will follow them, because there are kids in kindergarten today who could be working on this when New Horizons reaches Pluto."

On the Web

A photo of the Student Dust Counter team leaders and?a diagram of the instrument are available at

For more information on the Student Dust Counter project, visit

For more information on the New Horizons mission, visit

Exploring New Frontiers

New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto, its moon, Charon, and the Kuiper Belt of rocky, icy objects beyond. Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, director of the Southwest Research Institute's Space Studies Department, Boulder, Colo., leads a mission team that includes major partners at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md.; Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; Ball Aerospace Corp., Boulder; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. APL manages the mission for NASA and will design, build and operate the New Horizons spacecraft.

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For information, visit

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Last Updated: 11 May 2011