Students use Student Dust Counter data to improve understanding of space dust

Kuiper Belt Objects

The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region of icy objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, billions of kilometers from our Sun. NASA's New Horizons mission, along with the Student Dust Counter, will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft's journey began in 2006 and will continue into the Kuiper Belt after its Pluto flyby in 2016. (Courtesy NASA/GSFC)

Combining data from the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto and the historic Pioneer 10 mission, LASP scientists have derived a new estimate for the dust production rate in the Kuiper Belt. The data, collected by the CU-Boulder student-built Student Dust Counter (SDC) and the meteoroid detector onboard Pioneer 10, represent measurements of micron-sized interplanetary dust particles collected from just beyond the orbit of Earth out to the present position of New Horizons, at approximately 20 Astronomical Units (AU). The dust measurements on Pioneer 10 stopped at 18 AU. One AU is equal to the average distance from the Sun to the Earth, or approximately 93 million miles (149.5 million km).

Former LASP graduate students Dong Han and Andrew Poppe, along with current LASP undergraduate student Marcus Piquette, research scientist Eberhard Grün, and SDC Principal Investigator Mihály Horányi created a numerical model of the distribution of dust originating from the Kuiper Belt with parameters that could be adjusted to best fit the SDC and Pioneer measurements. Comparing the measurements by the two spacecraft and their model calculations, the team was able to estimate the production and the size distribution of dust generated in the Kuiper Belt. The results appeared in the December issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

The Kuiper Belt is a zone beyond the orbit of Neptune where millions of icy bodies, so called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs)—including Pluto—orbit the Sun between 20 and 50 AU. Dust grains are produced due to mutual collisions between KBOs, and due to their continual bombardment by interstellar dust. These particles migrate inward through the solar system and can alter the composition of the atmospheres of the giant planets and their ring systems. Studying these tiny particles can offer scientists clues about the how the solar system was formed billions of years ago and how it works today.

More information

To read the full journal publication, visit


Han, D., A. R. Poppe, M. Piquette, E. Gruen, and M. Horanyi (2011), Constraints on dust production in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt from Pioneer 10 and New Horizons measurements, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2011GL050136.


Mihály Horányi, Student Dust Counter Principal Investigator: 303-492-6903 or

Tom Mason, LASP press office: 303-492-8257 or

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