"Fourteen years to get it funded, four years to build it, nine years to fly it across the solar system," said
"We're on the last lap."
The objective of New Horizons is to get the first close-up view of Pluto and its moons, to learn about its history -- gleaned from the geology of its surface -- and to understand better the characteristics of its atmosphere.
The fact that New Horizons is now just one year from its distant target has
Over that time, according to Bagenal, a CU professor in astrophysical and planetary sciences, dozens of CU students have had a hand in the dust counter. Currently, she said, three CU students are working on it.
'They're going to eat this up'
Stern emphasized the mission's strong
"We're going to take the American public and the people of the world along and show them what true first-time space exploration, going to a new planet, is all about," Stern said. "They're going to love it. They're going to eat this up."
Terming the mission "raw exploration," Stern said it would be foolish to say much now about what will learned through New Horizons' close encounter with Pluto on humankind's first mission to that destination.
"It's like asking Columbus, 'What are you going to find when you reach
The "dust" being counted on the outskirts of our solar system, in what is known as the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, is actually what Bagenal termed "dusty ice," which she said "is all this stuff produced by objects bumping into each other and being ground up by icy objects like Pluto" and generating debris.
Bagenal voices pride in CU students' involvement in the project.
"It's important for two main reasons. One, of course, is that it inspires kids to study science and do their math homework and get excited and enthusiastic about space, particularly Pluto," she said.
"It's also important because we are giving undergraduate and graduate students at CU an opportunity to have hands-on experience in designing, building, operating space hardware that actually flies into space. Not many other universities do this."
"The Student Dust Counter has been taking data the entire way to Pluto and has been an incredibly rewarding experience," Szalay wrote in an email. "To be able to make decisions about instrument operations and be in charge of the scientific analysis for an instrument aboard a
He added, "The data garnered by SDC has allowed us to not only understand dynamics about our solar system, but of the countless solar systems in the observable universe."
Pluto, which had long been considered the ninth planet in the solar system, farthest from the sun, experienced a downgrade in status when the
Neither Bagenal nor Stern appear to care much for the distinction made by the IAU.
"Dwarf people are people, so dwarf planets are planets," Bagenal said.
"Like most planetary scientists I run into, we consider a dwarf planet to be a planet," Stern said. "It has all the same attributes as a planet."
Candles lit in space and on the ground
By whatever label the target is known, Bagenal is anxious to see what will be learned as New Horizons rockets toward its date with Pluto.
"I'm beginning to realize, oh by golly, we're going to get there," she said. "It's going to happen. We're now making plans for the actual flyby, what observations we will make, how we will get the data down, process it and how we will figure out what it all means."
But it is also not too soon, she said, to talk about where New Horizons will venture from there.
"It's going to keep going out through the Kuiper Belt," she said. "We've been looking for another target that we can go to. We only have enough fuel to change its trajectory by about 4 degrees, so we need to find an object that is sort of in its path.
"We have found a couple of potential objects that could be a suitable target; that's a big priority for the next year."
Stern said there would be a celebration of sorts Monday for New Horizons, as it is put through an engine burn to fine-tune its final trajectory.
"The spacecraft is going to light a bit of a candle with the engine burn," Stern said.
Stern said he will be at mission control in
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