When NASA's New Horizons mission was preparing for its journey to Pluto, an exciting, yet troubling, surprise arose - scientists found two small moons (named Nyx and Hydra) in orbit around the dwarf planet in addition to Pluto's largest moon, Charon. This led to initial concerns that the mission could be in danger of smacking into an unknown celestial body.
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While those worries have largely diminished with new observations (although two more moons, named Kerberos and Styx, have also been detected), there still are questions about how much dust and other small debris lingers in Pluto's system. Luckily, a student experiment is on the case.
A University of Colorado dust counter was initially intended as just an outreach activity, but as it turns out it is breaking a cosmic barrier. No experiment of its type has flown farther than the orbit of Uranus, since an experiment on one of the Pioneer spacecraft stopped working on its way ever outward.
So the Pluto-bound experiment will answer some unknowns about how big the dust grains are, and where it can be found, much farther out in the solar system in the Kuiper Belt.
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Near Pluto, the counter could help scientists understand just how many kinds of dust populate our solar system. Dust comes from several sources, such as comets disintegrating near the sun or a couple of small Kuiper Belt objects smacking into each other. Previous research suggested five types, but observations this far away are sporadic and poor. It could be the last time in a generation or more that we sail this far outward.
In honor of student research, the dust experiment is named after Venetia Phair (née Burney), who at age 11 suggested that Pluto should be the name of what was then considered the solar system's most distant planet. Burney lived long enough to see New Horizons launch in 2006, but died in 2009 at age 90.
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Because college students tend to (we hope!) graduate over time, the data will be handed down from student generation to student generation as the results come in. A first-year college student today in the United States would probably have been in Grade 5 when New Horizons launched. And in the nine-year span of the mission to date, two generations of college students would have graduated school.
And what about after Pluto? If New Horizons is approved to observe other Kuiper Belt objects, and if the film impact sensors last that long, the counter could collect even more dust measurements farther away from Earth. Not a bad way for a student to pass the time before graduation.