Student's space-dust counter breaks distance record, heads for Pluto

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Washington, Oct 12 (ANI): A student from University of Colorado at Boulder has designed a space dust counter that is flying aboard NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and now holds the record for the most distant working dust detector ever to travel through space.

Designed by Andrew Poppe and officially named the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, or SDC, the counter reached a distance of 1.67 billion miles from Earth on Oct. 10.

Travelling at 30,000 miles per hour, the New Horizons spacecraft recently passed the halfway point in distance to Pluto and is slated to make its closest approach to the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015.

Dust grains in the solar system are of high interest to researchers because they are the building blocks of the solar system's planets. New Horizons is expected to encounter in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond Neptune's orbit that contains thousands of icy objects that are thought to contain samples of ancient material formed in the solar system billions of years ago.

The SDC is a thin plastic film resting on a honeycombed aluminium structure the size of a cake pan mounted on the outside of the spacecraft.

A small electronic box inside the spacecraft functions as the instrument's "brain" to assess each individual dust particle that strikes the detector. The microscopic-sized dust grains hitting the SDC create unique electrical signals, allowing the students to infer the mass of each particle.

"The SDC was built and tested to the same NASA engineering standards as professionally built flight instruments, under the supervision of professionals," said SDC instrument principal investigator and LASP researcher Mihali Horanyi.

"The improved observations that SDC will make available will advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of our own solar system, as well as help scientists studying planet formation in dust disks around other stars," said Horanyi. (ANI)

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