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Historic Close Encounter with Pluto Captured with a Little Help from Friends at Materion

After 9-1/2 years hurtling 3 billion miles through the solar system, NASA's tiny New Horizons spacecraft passed by Pluto July 13th, providing scientists breathlessly waiting back on earth arresting new images of the dwarf planet.   High-performance materials from Materion Precision Optics were on board for much more than the ride.

Traveling at more than 31,000 miles per hour, the probe crossed the face of Pluto in just three minutes, yet allowed for our closest look ever (from "only" 7,800 miles away) and marking the last great American flyby of the planets.

NASA's New Horizon mission is to collect data that will shed light on the beginnings of the solar system. The spacecraft -- about the size of a grand piano and swathed in gold-colored foil -- spent almost two-thirds of its time in hibernation designed to keep its systems operational. 

Spacecraft Camera Contains Materion Filters

George Allen, Product Design Engineer at Precision Optics, describes Materion's contribution to the spacecraft. "Our customer Ball Aerospace, in cooperation with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), built the ‘Ralph' instrument, which is a critical component aboard New Horizons. ‘Ralph' includes the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which generates visible and near infrared multi-spectral images and the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), provided by NASA/Goddard, which generates short wave infrared hyperspectral images.  Materion was responsible for manufacturing the filters for MVIC as well as a beam splitter used to separate the visible wavelengths used in MVIC from the infrared wavelengths used by LEISA."  

Pluto Filter

Exciting new color images of Pluto and its five moons are being transmitted from New Horizons and reveal the diversity of their surface terrains. The images come courtesy of the ‘Ralph' camera and filters provided by Materion. "One crucial aspect of deep space missions is that all the components, such as the filters we supply, need to reliably function after many years of travel in a stressful space environment. These ‘space qualified' filters are an important part of Materion's durable optics offerings," added Tom Mooney, Product Engineering Manager, Precision Optics.  

The New Horizons mission to Pluto is considered a staggering technological achievement and the most exciting space mission in a generation. The geologic and atmospheric data collected is expected to help interpret the formation of the whole planetary system.   The ‘Ralph' camera has allowed us to capture high-resolution topographical images of a complex, variegated surface marked by chasms, mounds, craters and fault lines, as well as a strikingly bright heart-shaped region.

Pluto Annotated

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured on Pluto for the first time features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Rotating into view is the bright heart-shaped feature.   This annotated version includes a diagram indicating the dwarf planet's north pole, equator and central meridian.  Image credit:  NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI


Pluto New Horizons
Artist conception of New Horizons Spacecraft. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.