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Close Encounter with Pluto

…with a Little Help from Materion

After 9 1/2 years hurtling three billion miles through the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed within 7,800 miles of Pluto in July providing scientists back on earth with arresting new images.  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, allowing for our closest look ever at this mysterious dwarf planet. The mission of New Horizons 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. 

Horizons Spacecraft-JHUAP-SWRISpacecraft 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.“ 

Exciting new color images of Pluto and its moon Charon 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.

“Seeing” Pluto for the First Time

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 “see” Pluto for the first time this close, capturing high-resolution topographical images of a complex, variegated world with broad snowfields, structures that look like cliffs or fault lines, and a strikingly bright heart-shaped area that could be the eroded remnant of a giant impact crater.

Materion is proud of the part we played in this mission and looking forward to future “out of this world” opportunities, enabled, in part, by our advanced, high-performance materials. For more information, contact Tom Mooney, Product Engineering Manager,