When the New Horizons probe makes its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, Dayton ingenuity will be helping propel it.
Power generation technology similar to the kind developed at the former Mound Laboratories in Miamisburg in the 1950s — then tested extensively at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) — has helped the interplanetary probe travel the nearly 3.7 billion miles from Earth.
The probe will pass within 7,800 miles of Pluto at about 7:50 a.m. Tuesday.
Former Mound workers and current UDRI researchers are are well aware of the role they played in helping a spacecraft reach what was once regarded as the planet furthest from the sun, said Chadwick Barklay, a UDRI research scientist group leader. (Astronomers in the summer of 2006 demoted Pluto, reclassifying it as a “dwarf planet.”)
“It’s like the best-kept secret we have,” Barklay said.
UDRI also had a hand in testing how well the $720 million New Horizons probe could withstand a collision with deep-space debris.
The radioisotope thermoelectric generator helping drive the Pluto probe is similar (but not identical) to two generators housed in glass cases in a UDRI lab. A third generator also exists — on Mars, powering the NASA rover Curiosity.
“It’s a cousin,” UDRI research engineer Daniel Kramer said of the New Horizons generator. “A kissing cousin.”
Each generator encased at UDRI’s Old River Campus home is estimated to be worth some $20 million — although Kramer and his colleagues quickly say they have no “street value.” The devices are dubbed “multi-mission,” meaning they can withstand the rigors of operating on a planet’s surface or in the vacuum of space.
In 2014, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, UDRI designed experiments to test how well the generators couuld handle conditions on Mars, where temperatures can range from 45 degrees in the day to minus-140 at night.
The space probe power systems were assembled and tested at Mound until 2001. After the events of Sept. 11, 2011, it was deemed safer to move that work to a “very remote” location in Idaho, Barklay said. The New Horizons unit was the first unit assembled in Idaho. New Horizons itself launched in January 2006.
“There is significant pride in the community of folks who actually worked on these since the ’50s through the present day, to include ourselves,” said Barklay. He worked at Mound for more than 15 years.
Knowing what the generators can withstand helps NASA plan missions and seek funding from Congress, researchers said. UDRI monitors how the units perform over time under an array of conditions. One of the UDRI generators is housed in a heated case, to see how it deals with heat.
Eventually, the New Horizons probe will sail into deep space. Non-critical experiments will be shut down, to save power, Barklay said.
New Horizons’ components were expected to be durable, lasting at least a decade and beyond. Five years ago, Kevin Poormon, a UDRI senior engineer, was part of a team charged with testing how the components would fare in a collision with space projectiles moving at about 4.5 miles per second.
“One of the things they were concerned about was going out in space and getting hit with micro-meteoroid debris,” Poormon said. “Basically, they want to understand the risks involved. You can’t defend against every particle.”
So how tough are the New Horizons parts?
Poormon laughed. “Well, it can’t take a whole lot,” he said.
A UDRI spokeswoman said Poormon’s lab is expected to be part of a television special, “Direct from Pluto: The First Encounter,” on the Discovery Science channel, premiering in the U.S. at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday.
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