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10 Years and 3 Billion Miles to Reach Pluto

Precision Optics onboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches the finish of its Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission


2015 is going to be an exciting year in space exploration. On Dec. 6, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft woke up from its last hibernation just over 162 million miles from Pluto, the focus of its mission.

New Horizons left Earth in 2006, and the craft -- about the size of a grand piano -- has spent almost two-thirds of that time in one of 18 hibernation periods designed to keep its systems operational. The real excitement will start on January 15, when New Horizons will begin deploying a suite of instruments that will photograph the surface, measure the makeup of the atmosphere, and map the geology of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. By mid-May, the spacecraft should send home the best images we've ever had, even better than those provided by the Hubble Telescope, because of the craft’s close proximity to Pluto. By July, New Horizons will make its closest approach, coming within just a few thousand miles of the dwarf planet and its moons.

According to George Allen, Product Design Engineer, Materion Precision Optics, “Our customer Ball Aerospace built the Ralph instrument, a core member of the six instruments aboard New Horizons, in cooperation with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). Ralph includes the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), which generates visible and near infrared multi-spectral images and a panchromatic “framing” array for navigation, and the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), provided by NASA/Goddard, which generates short wave infrared hyperspectral images.  We produced the filters for MVIC along with a beamsplitter used to separate the visible wavelengths used in MVIC from the infrared wavelengths used by LEISA. “  

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 in the space environment. These ‘space qualified’ filters are an important part of our optics offerings.

Pluto may have lost its full-fledged planetary status in recent years, but it has just as many secrets to reveal to NASA as the rest of the solar system's bodies and Materion is proud of the part we play in this and future “out of this world” discoveries.