New Horizons’ Pluto Trip a Victory for Colorado Scientists, Firms

Sure, Pluto is 3 billion miles and nine years away, but the New Horizons spacecraft and the scientists behind the mission are actually quite close to home, if you live in Colorado.

New Horizons flew to within 7,800 miles of the solar system’s quirky one-time planet early this morning. The fly-by was the culmination of a nine-year mission that actually went on much longer for the key players behind the program, many of whom work in Colorado. They, along with the companies that built the spacecraft, are key parts of the mission that has captured the public’s attention the past few days.

A well-earned victory for Colorado scientists. Leading figures on the New Horizons team hail from Colorado’s universities and laboratories, and the mission is unlikely to have happened without their efforts, which began three decades ago.

The mission’s principal investigator is Alan Stern, a University of Colorado alumnus who currently is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. CU professors Mihaly Horanyi and Fran Bagenal are co-investigators, and students in CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics designed an instrument that has collected particles of space dust during the trip. CU boasts that it’s the first instrument designed and built by students to fly on a NASA planetary mission.

When Stern was a CU grad student, he, Bagenal, and a group of fellow researchers banded together to form what was later called the Pluto Underground. In the late 1980s they pushed NASA to support a mission, and in the early 2000s Stern helped rally support for the project after NASA attempted to kill the mission.

Colorado’s mighty aerospace industry. New Horizons’ connections to Colorado’s aerospace industry are extensive. Crucial components were built in Colorado, including key instruments such as the suite of high-resolution image detectors that took pictures of Pluto’s surface. The instrument package, named “Ralph,” was built by Ball Aerospace, which is based in Boulder, and serves as the probe’s eyes and helps scientists learn about Pluto’s geology, atmosphere, and temperature.

Getting to Pluto was never going to be easy, and the Atlas V rocket that launched New Horizons on its way was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which is based south of Denver.

But that isn’t all. Custom Microwave, a small company in Longmont, developed a special coating used to protect instruments from radiation and light.

While Colorado might not be regarded as a mecca for space travel the way the Johnson Space Center or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are, companies and researchers from the Centennial State have a hand in virtually every NASA mission or project.

Planet diehards. Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet in 2006, but that doesn’t mean the controversy is settled, at least for some people. Even among scientists, there remain diehards who don’t accept the International Astronomical Union’s reclassification—chief among them, the leaders of the New Horizons mission.

Stern in particular is an outspoken pro-planet advocate, and he’s used his recent fame to argue his position. In an interview with NPR, he called the planet/dwarf planet distinction an arbitrary one based more on convenience than hard science.

Whatever the merits of that view, and whether Pluto’s status even matters to astronomers and astrophysicists, it’s hard to imagine that this mission would have captured the world’s attention if everyone had not been raised thinking Pluto was a planet. Its remoteness, weird attributes, and the fact that it shared a name with a Disney character everyone could remember gave it a certain mystique—or at least made it memorable.

Just think back to when a NASA probe visited Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Remember that? Probably not, and that mission reached its destination this spring.

Oh yeah, we learned a few things, and there’s more to come. Sure, there’s the achievement of finally making it to Pluto, and New Horizons gave us the first good picture of what Pluto’s surface looks like. But that’s just the beginning of the data that’s making its way back to Earth, and scientists expect to have much more later this evening.

Scientists already have said that the probe gives them more accurate data about Pluto’s size and confirms there is ice containing methane and nitrogen at Pluto’s poles. They also found that nitrogen is escaping Pluto’s atmosphere faster than expected.

Meanwhile, New Horizons moves on. The spacecraft now is traveling through the Kuiper Belt, the unexplored region beyond Neptune that includes Pluto. Scientists believe the belt is the home of billions of comets and other objects that date back to the solar system’s creation some 4.5 billion years ago.

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