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Posted: December 31, 2005The University of Colorado at Boulder's long heritage withNASA planetary missions will continue Jan. 17 with the launch of astudent space dust instrument on the New Horizons Mission to Plutofrom Florida's Kennedy Space Center.As the first student-built instrument ever selected by thespace agency to fly on a planetary mission, the CU-Boulder StudentDust Counter, or SDC, will monitor the density of dust grains inspace as New Horizons buzzes to Pluto and beyond. The dust grainsare of high interest to researchers because they are the buildingblocks of the solar system's planets, said Research Associate MihalyHoranyi of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics,principal investigator for the student instrument.The student team hopes to identify as-yet-undetected clumpsof dust in the dust disk of the solar system caused by the gravity ofthe outer planets, said Horanyi, who is also a professor in thephysics department. "This will help us to understand the formationof our own planets, as well as those seen in dust disks around otherstars," he said."Just as importantly, this effort will provide students withan important role in a pioneering space mission for years to come,"said Horanyi.Instruments and experiments designed and built for NASAmissions by CU-Boulder's LASP since the 1970s have visited Venus,Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In addition, NASA'sMESSENGER spacecraft, now en route to Mercury, is carrying a $7million device designed and built by CU-Boulder's LASP.The SDC detector is a thin, plastic film resting on ahoneycombed aluminum structure the size of a cake pan mounted on theoutside of the spacecraft, said Horanyi. A small electronic boxinside the spacecraft will function as the instrument's "brain" toassess each individual dust particle that strikes the detector duringthe mission.The researchers are particularly interested in the dust thatNew Horizons will encounter in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyondthe orbit of Neptune that contains thousands of ancient, icy objects,said Horanyi. Kuiper Belt objects are thought to contain samples ofancient material formed in the solar system billions of years ago.Microscopic-sized dust grains hitting the SDC will createunique electrical signals, allowing the CU-Boulder students to inferthe mass of each particle, said CU-Boulder doctoral student DavidJames, who has been working on the electronics of the dust detectionsystem on SDC for the past two years. While the spacecraft will bein "sleep mode" for much of the cruise to Pluto, CU-Boulder's dustdetector will remain turned on to catch space dust during thejourney, James said.The SDC team is comprised of CU-Boulder students fromelectrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, computerscience, journalism and business who designed and fabricated theinstrument under the supervision of LASP faculty and staff. Thestudents will share their findings and mission experiences withstudents and the public around the world via the Internet and publicpresentations."I never dreamed I would get the chance to actually work on aspace mission as an undergraduate student," said Elizabeth Grogan,who began working on the SDC as software engineer while a senior atCU-Boulder. She now works at LASP as a research assistant on the NewHorizons effort. "I got much more hands-on experience on thisproject than I could have ever gotten in a classroom," Grogan said.The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the explorationof Pluto, its moon, Charon, and the Kuiper Belt among the highestpriorities for space exploration, citing their importance inadvancing the understanding of the solar system."We expect that several generations of CU-Boulder studentswill be involved in the mission during the next two decades," Horanyisaid.The New Horizons mission is led by the Southwest ResearchInstitute's Department of Space Studies in Boulder under thedirection of Alan Stern. New Horizons was designed and built atJohns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.,which will operate the spacecraft for NASA. The piano-sized probewill launch on a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Kennedy tobegin its10-year journey to Pluto.The 1,000-pound probe, which will be the fastest spacecraftever launched, will approach Pluto and Charon as early as summer2015. In addition to the dust counter, the instrument suite includestwo cameras, two imaging spectrometers and two particle spectrometersto gather data on the surfaces, atmospheres and temperatures ofPluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt objects.Horanyi said a group of current and former CU-Boulderstudents who worked on SDC are going to the Florida launch, manypaying their own way from around the world. "Many of these studentshave moved on to other institutions and careers, but they are excitedto see this mission finally launch," he said. "If all goes well, wewill be having another reunion in 10 years when the spacecraftreaches Pluto."Telescopes.comLargest selection and the best prices anywhere in the world. 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