News Column

Boulder researchers' anticipation builds on looming date with Pluto

July 12, 2014

By Charlie Brennan, Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

July 12--Excitement is mounting for Boulder-based researchers as a historic space probe to which they are making a key contribution is nearing its destination at the farthest reaches of the solar system.

At 5:49:59 a.m. MDT Monday, NASA's New Horizons mission will be exactly one year from its nearest approach -- about 6,000 miles -- to the icy dwarf planet Pluto and its five known moons. That will mark the climax of a historic voyage lasting nine and a half years and covering more than 3 billion miles.

"Fourteen years to get it funded, four years to build it, nine years to fly it across the solar system," said Alan Stern, principal investigator on the mission and associate vice president for research and development of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.

"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.

NASA's website for the mission shows a cost of $700 million, but University of Colorado professor Fran Bagenal, a co-investigator on the mission, puts it closer to $1 billion, or, as she put it, "a cafe latte per person in the U.S."

The fact that New Horizons is now just one year from its distant target has Boulder-based scientists keen with anticipation over seeing their goals within reach. New Horizons carries an instrument, dubbed the Student Dust Counter, designed and built by CU undergraduate and graduate students, whose work on the project dates back to 2002.

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 Colorado ties, pointing out that "Ralph," its main camera system and mapping spectrometers, were jointly built by SwRI and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., was instrumental in winning necessary funding, he said.

"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 North America?'" Stern said. "He didn't have a clue."

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."

Jamey Szalay, starting his fifth year as a doctoral student in physics at CU, is the lead graduate student for the Student Dust Counter, in charge of operations and analysis.

"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 NASA mission is unparalleled for a graduate student project."

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 International Astronomical Union in 2006 elected to reclassify it as a dwarf planet. The IAU determined that it was the second-largest of thousands of icy masses in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, which extends from Neptune to about 55 astronomical units, or, 55 times the distance of the Earth to the sun.

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 Laurel, Maryland, on Monday, where the one-year-out mark will be observed with celebratory cake -- and candles.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.

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(c)2014 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.)

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