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Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics


The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) is an instrument aboard the NASA New Horizons mission, which launched in 2006 and made a successful flyby of the Pluto system in July 2015. All along its journey to Pluto and beyond, the SDC has provided information on the dust that strikes the spacecraft. These observations will advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of our own solar system, as well as helping scientists study planet formation in dust disks around other stars.

Student-built instruments that fly aboard “real” NASA missions are an important way for the scientists and engineers of tomorrow to gain experience in space missions. SDC is a “secondary science” payload; NASA placed SDC on New Horizons as a way to get additional data that did not interfere with the primary science mission for the spacecraft. NASA benefits from SDC because it provides learning opportunities for future space industry experts and gets an instrument that gathers data and helps answer scientific questions.

Funding for the SDC came primarily from the NASA New Horizons budget, through the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages New Horizons; and the Southwest Research Institute, home institution of mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern. LASP has contributed funds to help pay students working on the SDC.