Students sent instrument to Pluto

They named their dust counter for the child who came up with Pluto’s name

This is what the dust-measuring instrument looked like before it was installed on the New Horizons spacecraft in August 2004.

This is what the dust-measuring instrument looked like before it was installed on the New Horizons spacecraft in August 2004.


The New Horizons spacecraft is hauling the first student-built instrument on a planetary mission. Called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, its job is to record impacts from space dust. Students at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, designed the device. And they named it for the 11-year-old girl who in 1930 suggested that Pluto would be a good name for the newfound ninth “planet.”

The 11-year-old Venetia Burney, an English girl who in 1930 suggested the newfound ninth “planet” be named Pluto. Her inspiration: the Roman god of the underworld (not the Disney character). Wikimedia
The Kuiper belt is a region out beyond the planets in our solar system. It’s home to a number of large rocky objects, dust and other debris orbiting the sun. Occasional collisions between Kuiper belt objects sometimes generate dust that’s gets kicked out of that zone. Some of this dust and grit may spiral towards the sun, notes Mihály Horányi. A planetary scientist, he worked with the Boulder students who developed the new device. Their new tool now measures the amount and size of these dust particles whizzing through space. This dust provides an indirect way of studying what’s orbiting beyond Neptune, Horányi explains.

Unlike all the other cameras and instruments on the New Horizons craft, the dust counter has been busy since shortly after launch. It’s been collecting data from across the entire solar system. The dust counter also will probably be the last to shut down, long after New Horizons has passed beyond the Kuiper belt. “Everything will work for decades to come,” says Horányi. Or at least as long as the power (and funding) lasts.

New Horizons got a useful instrument from the Boulder students, he says. But space science also got a cadre of researchers eager to keep exploring. “I’m very proud of these students,” says Horányi. “Their careers are just beautiful to watch.”

By the way, those students were held to the same high standards as everyone else providing instruments for the Pluto-bound mission. Horányi says his students had to “jump through exactly the same hoops.” And after routinely impressing the NASA review boards, he notes, the students’ dust counter was the first instrument to show up at the mother ship.

Power Words

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astronomy  The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe as a whole. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

debris  Scattered fragments, typically of trash or of something that has been destroyed. Space debris, for instance, includes the wreckage of defunct satellites and spacecraft. 

dwarf planet    One of the solar system’s small celestial objects. Like a true planet, it orbits the sun. However, dwarf planets are too small to qualify as true planets. Prime examples of these objects: Pluto and Ceres.

engineer  A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

Kuiper belt  An area of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. It is a vast area containing leftovers from the formation of the solar system that continue to orbit the sun. Many objects in the Kuiper belt are made of ice, rock, frozen methane and ammonia.

orbit  The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.

Pluto  A dwarf planet that is located in the Kuiper Belt, just beyond Neptune. Pluto is the tenth largest object orbiting the sun.

solar system  The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around the sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.

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