Postcards from the Edge
Douglas Adams wrote: “Space is Big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
Some of that distance, though, is about to shrink.
Enter NASA’s New Horizons mission. Launched in 2006, it’s been hurdling toward the outer reaches of our solar system at 31,000 miles per hour. The destination? Pluto, its system of five known moons, and beyond.
The craft is on track for its closest flyby of Pluto on July 14th; detailed information is expected to arrive beginning the 16th (again, space is big). Using a host of abbreviation-heavy scientific equipment—REX, SWAP, and PEPSSI to name a few—Pluto and its orbiting bodies will be analyzed in unprecedented ways. Combine that with “Ralph” (a visible and infrared imager/ spectrometer) and “Alice” (an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer), and it’s clear more than data-loving scientists will be glued to their screens.
If that weren’t exciting enough, much of this has been made possible by contributions from Colorado.
Boulder’s Ball Aerospace, for example, built Ralph. They collaborated on the 800 feet-per-pixel resolution camera array with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). Heavy hitting partners, to be sure.
SwRI, headquartered in San Antonio, locates its Planetary Science Directorate branch in downtown Boulder. For New Horizons it’s tasked with payload operations, data concerns, as well as larger science team requirements. Dr. Alan Stern, based out of SwRI’s Boulder office, is serving as Principal Investigator for the entire undertaking.
Additionally, part of New Horizons’ scientific payload comes from people who weren’t on a payroll. The SDC—Student Dust Collector—is designed, built, tested, and operated by CU-Boulder students. The instrument analyzes any dust the craft travels through, with the aim of these particles giving not only information about what’s currently out there but what might have been when our solar system formed. This is the first time in history a student instrument is included on a planetary mission.
New Horizons is an outlier among recent NASA activities. While projects such as the Hubble Telescope, WMAP, and several Mars rovers have been exceedingly successful and exciting, they stay pretty close to home. Cassini-Huygens extends that reach to Saturn and its moons, but is still in our area, relatively speaking.
Data gathered by those missions is nothing short of remarkable, even game changing, but largely refines existing information. By contrast, New Horizons is in uncharted territory, and tasked with studying bodies of which we know little. In that way, it picks up where Voyager I and II left off a generation ago: exploring the truly unknown.
As New Horizons drifts closer to Pluto, its images increasingly sharp, more than geological features will come into focus. Understanding of our galactic pixel will deepen. Coming to terms with what’s beyond the planetary frame will enter a different phase. It’s no stretch to say an entirely new album of science is being assembled before our eyes—picture-by-picture, point by interesting data point, and with more than a little Boulder flair.