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NASA New Horizon mission to Pluto: Successes and challenges

Posted: 06 Nov 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:NASA  New Horizon  spacecraft  design  electronics 

History reveals that man has made remarkable achievements in terms of space exploration. However, those triumphs are not without its share of failures. The value behind these accomplishments and disappointments is in improving what worked and in avoiding the same pitfalls.

We have all heard about NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto and beyond recently this summer. The launch of this spacecraft was incredibly on January 19, 2006. That's over 9.6 years ago! Pluto was a prime target to examine but the ship will continue into the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region of icy bodies of which Pluto is a part. New Horizons, a piano-sized probe weighing 478kg, is the only mission to explore the Kuiper belt so far.

New Horizons spacecraft

New Horizons spacecraft (Image courtesy of NASA)

The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud surround our sun, a star. The Kuiper Belt is a doughnut-shaped ring, extending just beyond the orbit of Neptune from about 30AU to 55AU (an astronomical unit or AU is the average distance between Earth and the Sun, which is about 150 million kilometres. Astronomical units are usually used to measure distances within our solar system). The Oort Cloud is a spherical shell, occupying space at a distance between five thousand and 100 thousand AU.

Now let's get into our favourite part of the article, the electronics. I want to use the New Horizons spacecraft and its voyage to Pluto as an excellent example of the challenges to electronic systems on a long journey in space. My research has delved into the system designs and functionality as well as some of the difficulties an engineer would face in designing such systems.

The science payload

The payload was developed under the direction of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and containing instruments from SwRI, APL, NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, the University of Colorado, Stanford University and Ball Aerospace Corporation.

Each of the seven science instruments below only use as little of 2W to 10W (the power of a night light). These instruments send data to one of two onboard solid-state memory banks from which the data is recorded and can later play it back in a signal journey back to Earth.

New Horizons Science Payload

The New Horizons Science Payload (Image courtesy of NASA)

Let's now look into the electronics inside the seven science payloads being carried into deep space by the New Horizons spacecraft:

1) Ralph

The Ralph is a visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides colour, composition and thermal maps.

Ralph instrument

The Ralph instrument: The instrument has two separate channel, the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) and the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). A single telescope with a 6cm aperture collects and focuses the light used in both channels. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Ralph instrument model

Ralph instrument model

Ralph optics

The Ralph instrument is mounted to the exterior of the New Horizons spacecraft. Ralph consists of a single telescope that feeds two sets of focal planes: 1) the Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), a visible, near-IR imager and 2) the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), a short-wavelength, IR, spectral imager.

Ralph electronic design

The schematic of Ralph electronic design: The high degree of redundancy is shown in this system.

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