LASP scientists spent the first hours of 2019 in a Maryland operations center watching NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shoot past a minor planet more than 4 billion miles from Earth—the farthest object that any spacecraft has ever explored.
That icy object, an elongated body about 19 miles tall, is called 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule, a Latin phrase that means “beyond the known world.”
CU Boulder researchers and students are playing an important role in this brush with the unknown, which took place on Jan. 1. As New Horizons zips through the outermost regions of our solar system, it will collect and analyze specks of dust using an instrument designed by students at LASP.
On its last orbits in 2017, the long-running Cassini spacecraft dove between Saturn’s rings and its upper atmosphere and bathed in a downpour of dust that astronomers call “ring rain.”
In research published today in Science, LASP research associate Hsiang-Wen (Sean) Hsu and his colleagues report that they successfully collected microscopic material streaming from the planet’s rings.
The findings, which were made with Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer and Radio and Plasma Wave Science instruments, come a little more than a year after the spacecraft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere. They stem from the mission’s “grand finale,” in which Cassini completed a series of risky maneuvers to zip under the planet’s rings at speeds of 75,000 miles per hour.
Researchers at CU Boulder will soon set their sights on the heliosphere, a massive bubble in space that surrounds our solar system and shields it from incoming radiation.
NASA’s recently announced Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, which is slated to launch in 2024, will hover close to one million miles from Earth where it will observe the outermost edges of the solar system—the limits of our Sun’s influence on space.
LASP will play a major role in the nearly $500 million mission by leading IMAP’s scientific operations and designing an instrument that will fly on the spacecraft, detecting tiny particles of dust that flow through space.
In 1977, two NASA space probes destined to forever upend our view of the solar system launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The identical spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, took off in in August and September 40 years ago and were programmed to pass by Jupiter and Saturn on different paths. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune, completing NASA’s “Grand Tour of the Solar System,” perhaps the most exhilarating interplanetary mission ever flown.
CU Boulder scientists at LASP, who designed and built identical instruments for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were as stunned as anyone when the spacecraft began sending back data to Earth.
A team of LASP scientists, led by University of Colorado physics professor Mihály Horányi, has conducted laboratory experiments that may bring closure to a long-standing issue of electrostatic dust transport, explaining a variety of unusual phenomena on the surfaces of airless planetary bodies, including observations from the Apollo era and the recent Rosetta mission to Comet 67P.
A LASP-led and University of Colorado Boulder student-built instrument riding on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft found only a handful of dust grains, the building blocks of planets, when it whipped by Pluto at 31,000 miles per hour last July.
Data downloaded and analyzed by the New Horizons team indicated the space environment around Pluto and its moons contained only about six dust particles per cubic mile, said LASP planetary scientist and CU-Boulder Professor Fran Bagenal, who leads the New Horizons Particles and Plasma Team.
“The bottom line is that space is mostly empty,” said Bagenal. “Any debris created when Pluto’s moons were captured or created during impacts has long since been removed by planetary processes.”
In 1930, an object smaller than our moon was discovered, labeled the ninth planet from the sun, and named Pluto at the suggestion of 11-year-old British girl Venetia Burney. The name was adopted because it was thought to be fitting as Pluto is the Roman God of the Underworld who is able to make himself invisible.
Invisible no longer.
The moon is engulfed in a permanent but lopsided dust cloud that increases in density when annual events like the Geminids spew shooting stars, according to a new study led by LASP scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The cloud is made up primarily of tiny dust grains kicked up from the moon’s surface by the impact of high-speed, interplanetary dust particles, said CU-Boulder physics Professor and LASP research associate Mihály Horányi. A single dust particle from a comet striking the moon’s surface lofts thousands of smaller dust specks into the airless environment, and the lunar cloud is maintained by regular impacts from such particles, said Horányi.
When NASA’s napping New Horizon’s spacecraft awakens later this week in preparation for its July 2015 encounter with Pluto, a University of Colorado Boulder student instrument onboard already will have been up for years.
The instrument, the Student Dust Counter (SDC), was designed and built to detect dust both on the interplanetary journey to Pluto and beyond, said CU-Boulder physics Professor and LASP research scientist Mihaly Horanyi, principal investigator on the effort. The SDC has been on for most of the mission—even as the other instruments primarily napped—measuring dust grains that are the building blocks of the solar system’s planets, he said.
NASA has approved a 28-day mission extension for the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). LASP provided the Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) onboard the satellite, which launched on September 6, 2013 and is now expected to impact the surface of the moon in late April 2014.
Due to accurate and efficient propulsion and guidance over the course of the mission to date, the spacecraft has more fuel remaining than mission operators originally expected. The extra propellant will provide an opportunity for LADEE to gather an additional full lunar cycle worth of very low-altitude data to help scientists unravel the mysteries of the moon’s tenuous atmosphere and dust environment.
Using data from the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto, LASP scientists have made new measurements of interplanetary dust density. The data, collected from the CU-Boulder student-built Student Dust Counter (SDC) and the meteoroid detector on the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, represent measurements of the micro-sized dust grains from the Earth out to the present position of the SDC, at approximately 20 Astronomical Units (AU). One AU is equal to the average distance from the Sun to the Earth, or approximately 93 million miles (149.5 million km).
Using data from the NASA Cassini mission, a team of scientists led by LASP researcher Sean Hsu, has successfully modeled dust streams being expelled from Saturn at speeds of more than 62 miles (100 km) per second. The data, taken from the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) and the magnetometer on board Cassini, provide new information about the sources of the dust, as well as interactions within the mix of subatomic particles in which the charged dust is immersed, called dusty plasma.
A new video that introduces the unique story of LASP student involvement in a NASA satellite instrument is now available. The video features students involved in the design, production, and operation of the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC), an instrument aboard the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto. Under the supervision of professional education staff, LASP undergraduate student Alex Thom compiled the video from archived mission footage and interviews.
LASP graduate student Andrew Poppe was recognized for his outstanding contributions to the Student Dust Counter instrument on board the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
The Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC), a CU/LASP-built instrument aboard the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto, just became the record-holder for the most distant functioning space dust detector ever in space. On October 10, the SDC surpassed the previous record when it flew beyond 18 astronomical units—one unit is the distance between the… Read more »