The NASA spacecraft New Horizons has been traveling toward Pluto for the last nine years, with seven independent instruments on board, each intended to spring to life once on Pluto, in order to collect various bits of data from the solar system.
All but one of these instruments has been patiently waiting for its turn; the one active instrument, called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (SDC), has been working nonstop to collect dust particles from space, to analyze the material, and then to send this information back down to Earth.
A student group at the University of Colorado, Boulder was in charge of creating the SDC. Now, nearly 10 years after the SDC was sent away (and 15 years after the project was first started), it’s becoming clear just how much work this student group contributed to the mission.
In everyday life, the presence of dust is more of an nuisance — if not a serious health risk — but it’s important to realize that space dust differs quite a bit from the particles that you sweep up off the floor.
An average ounce of Earth dust found in a carpet can easily contain about 2,000 dust mites, but the space dust in the new student research group is likely to contain particles that are much more interesting.
Space dust is the material that results after collisions between asteroids, comets, and other materials in space. It’s highly unlikely that living organisms will be found in the dust collected by the SDC, but traces of ice crystals and chemical compounds could still provide insights into how the universe was created.
The project was first proposed to NASA by physics professor Mihaly Horanyi, and by 2003, the project was approved and a handful of students agreed to help. As news spread about the SDC, students scrambled to join the team, which was the first student group to launch any instrument on an interplanetary mission, according to the New York Times and The Space Reporter.
It took two years to build the SDC and at certain points in the journey, the team has had to monitor the device constantly to ensure that it would survive the trip. One particular situation, according to the Times, involved 24-hour shifts, which were particularly taxing on students.
The majority of the original student team has graduated from the university and moved onto other endeavors, but four of the original student researchers have stayed on board.