Student-built space-science instrument breaks distance record; new results published


Student-built space-science instrument breaks distance record; new results published

Andrew Poppe
CU/LASP physics graduate student Andrew Poppe operates SDC and analyzes the data.

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 sun and the Earth—or 1.67 billion miles, which is approaching the orbit of Uranus. The only other dedicated dust instruments to measure space dust beyond the orbit of Jupiter were aboard Pioneers 10 and 11 in the 1970s. Additionally, SDC is the first science instrument on a planetary mission to be designed, tested, and operated by students.

“The New Horizons mission is going to break a lot of records, but this early one is one of the sweetest,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “We’re very proud to be collecting solar system dust data farther out than any mission ever has, and we’re even prouder to be carrying the first student-built and -operated science instrument ever sent on a planetary space mission.”

Andrew Poppe, a LASP graduate student in physics who operates SDC and analyzes the data, said, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be part of the group of students who made this happen. We built a record-breaking, successful instrument that is taking scientific measurements to advance our understanding of the role of dust in our solar system.”

Poppe and several collaborators recently published the first results from SDC in Geophysical Research Letters. Poppe said, “The SDC measurements of dust inside 5 astronomical units agreed well with the earlier measurements made by the Galileo and Ulysses missions. We also reported the first-ever measurements of sub-micron-sized dust grains in the outer solar system by a dedicated dust instrument.”

Poppe is one of five students on the current SDC team, and one of 32 who have worked on the instrument since the project began in 2002. The original team of approximately 20 undergraduate and graduate students has evolved over time, with new students brought into the fold as the nearly 20-year New Horizons mission has proceeded from concept development through launch and into its ongoing flight phase.

SDC instrument Principal Investigator Mihaly Horanyi, a LASP researcher and CU professor, said, “The SDC was built and tested to the same NASA engineering standards as professionally built flight instruments, under the supervision of professionals. Students have filled roles from science and engineering to journalism and accounting; many of them have graduated and gone on to careers in the space industry. In addition to its significant contribution to science, SDC proved to be an excellent investment in the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.”

LASP manages the SDC instrument project and has a long tradition of involvement with student instruments, including the Solar Mesosphere Explorer and the Student Nitric Oxide Experiment. LASP recruits both undergraduates and graduates from CU to help with instrument design, construction, maintenance, programming, and operations. Funding for the SDC came primarily from the NASA New Horizons mission, through the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages New Horizons; and the Southwest Research Institute, home institution of Stern and the center of New Horizons instrument observation planning. LASP has also contributed funds to help pay students working on the SDC. In June 2006, the instrument was renamed for Venetia Burney, the English schoolgirl who, at age 11, offered the name “Pluto” for the newly discovered ninth planet in 1930.


Andrew Poppe, David James, Brian Jacobsmeyer, and Mihály Horányi. 2010. First results from the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter on the New Horizons mission. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 37, L11101, 5 PP. doi:10.1029/2010GL043300

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