KUSA- NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is on the doorstep of discovery. It launched in 2006 and, after a nine-year voyage, is now just weeks away from reaching its target: the distant dwarf planet Pluto.
On board New Horizons is a CU-Boulder student built science instrument, called the Student Dust Counter or SDC. It's the first time NASA has ever placed a science instrument, built by students, on a mission to another planet.
"It was exciting when it launched back then and we've been waiting for so long," said Chelsey Krug, who worked on the SDC as a student.
CU professor Mihaly Horani is with CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and principal investigator for the SDC.
"At the end of the day, it is my responsibility to make sure it is working and collecting data and works exactly as it's designed," he said. "It is incredibly rewarding to have a student instrument that is contributing to real science."
Most of the devices on New Horizons have been in hibernation for the three-billion mile journey to Pluto. However, the Student Dust Counter has been working the whole time: collecting dust particles that can tell us more about our solar system and planets beyond our reach.
"So, you can look out at another solar system and you can see their dust and how it's distributed and you can say, based on that dust, I think there's a planet right here," said David James, who worked on the SDC from 2004-2009.
Since the mission has taken so long to get to Pluto, many of the students who worked on the SDC have since graduated and started their careers. Yet, they're still following the progress of New Horizons and the device onboard they helped create.
"It's not too often that we get to see something that is truly unexplored – and Pluto really is one of the last unexplored areas of the solar system," said Beth Cervelli, who worked on the SDC's software. "And to know that I was a part of that and I contributed in some small way to that, is an incredible feeling."
New Horizons is scheduled to make its closest fly-by of Pluto beginning on July 14. After that, it will continue traveling on to a mysterious part of space called the Kuiper Belt, which scientists believe contains a number of unexplored planets.
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