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By Carolyn Collins Petersen, TheSpacewriter
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Dust in Space!

Saturday, June 13, 2015 9:47
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(Before It's News)

A Student-built Instrument is Teaching us about Dust in Space

When I went back to school to pursue graduate studies, I applied for on-campus jobs related to my interests in astronomy and planetary science. One I applied for was a student-controlled mission, the other was a place on a research team where I would eventually work with Hubble Space Telescope data. I got the second one, which turned out to be a real turning point in my career studying astronomy as well as being a science writer.

The location of the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter onboard New Horizons. Courtesy NASA/APL/New Horizons

The school was the University of Colorado, which is the premier place to be if you want to work on space missions as an undergraduate or a grad student. I’m often meet CU grads at NASA and other institutions who got their start working on some mission or another while at the university. Which brings me to the latest student-run effort: the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC) onboard the New Horizons mission. It was designed, built, and is run by students. It’s named for Venetia Burney Phair, a British woman who, as a young girl, sent in the name “Pluto” for Clyde Tombaugh’s newly discovered planet back in 1930.

Dr. Mihayl Horanyi (University of Colorado) presents Mrs. Venetia Burney Phair with a plaque dedicating the Student Dust Counter in her name. Courtesy NASA/APL/New Horizons

As the spacecraft swoops through the solar system, the SDC gathers dust, literally. The impacts of the dust on the detector tell the mission scientists something about the sizes and distribution (how much dust there is in given areas of the solar system) of particles along the mission trajectory.

To understand why this counter is important, let’s look at dust in the solar system in general. We find it everywhere, spread throughout interplanetary space. It’s more dense in some places (such as ring systems or along comet orbits) than in others, and its presence tells us something about what’s been happening in that area of the solar system. Comets spread dust as they warm up near the Sun, and asteroids generate dust as they orbit. Collisions are great creators of dust, particularly impacts between asteroids, asteroids onto planet surfaces,  and collisions between small bodies in the outer solar system. Interstellar dust comes zipping through our neighborhood; it can collide with comets, asteroids, and other objects, sending dust out to interplanetary space, too. Our solar system continues to be a busy place, even down to the production of dust!

Astronomers know more about the dust in the inner parts of the solar system, largely because there have been more missions swooping through this part of the neighborhood. What we don’t have a lot of knowledge about is the dust environment in the outer solar system. In particular, we need to know more about the dust in the Kuiper Belt region: what’s its made of and where it comes from.

This is where the SDC comes in very handy. It has been counting dust ever since just after launch, making the first-ever measurements of very small grains of dust (called sub-micron-sized particles), along its route, and will continue to do so as the spacecraft continues through the Kuiper Belt (where Pluto orbits). The major idea behind this experiment is to measure how the distribution of dust changes through the solar system, which the SDC is doing very well. It’s the first (and so far only) dust detector to be flown out to such a distant realm (beyond the outer gas giants, and is giving the mission scientists a more complete look at dust production and dust “transport” through the solar system than they’ve ever had before.

What tickles me is that students are doing this project, in a grand tradition that I was (and am) proud to be part of at my alma mater. There have been research papers generated by the students and scientists attached to the mission, and there will be more. All in all, it’s already a great success story for the New Horizons mission.

Keep up with the latest news about the New Horizons mission on the mission web page and keep checking back. Flyby date with Pluto is less than a month away! There’s a LOT more cool stuff to come!


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