New Horizons & Pluto meet ESC & Kevin Bacon

October 02, 2015

Max the Magnificent-October 02, 2015

I'm often asked why, in this era of the Internet, anyone should spend the time and money to physically attend a conference when so much information is available on the web. For myself, I think the answer is obvious -- when you attend a conference, you get to meet other engineers and representatives from component and tool vendors, equipment manufacturers, and service providers.

As an engineer, I don’t think you can overstate the advantages of networking furiously with others who are working in the same area so you can bounce ideas around; it's also advantageous to meet people working in complementary fields -- say wireless mesh networks -- and add them to your list of potential resources.

There's a theory known as the Six degrees of Separation that proposes everyone is six or fewer steps away -- by way of introduction -- from any other person in the world. To put this another way, a chain of "a friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people on the planet in a maximum of six steps. (In the case of the related Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, there's a similar theory that any individual involved in the film industry can be linked through his or her film roles to Kevin Bacon within six steps.)

But why am I waffling on about this here? Well, let's take the New Horizons interplanetary space probe, which was launched in 2006 as a part of NASA's New Frontiers program.

The New Horizons interplanetary space probe (courtesy NASA).

On 14 July 2015, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to fly-by Pluto, which is about one-sixth the mass of the Moon and one-third its volume. Personally, it blows my mind to think that we can send a piano-size spacecraft travelling for nine years and over three billion miles and get it close enough to a dwarf planet only 1,474 miles (2,372 kilometers) in diameter to take the mind-numbingly beautiful images seen below. (It also amazes me that we managed to avoid crashing into Pluto or one of its moons.)

This high-resolution image of Pluto shows incredible levels of detail (courtesy NASA).

What do you think the chances are that you know someone who knows someone (just two degrees of separation) who designed some of the imaging sensors used on New Horizons? Well, you know me, and I do know that someone, so there you are!

The way this all came about was that I was chatting to my chum Adam Taylor at ESC Silicon Valley, which took place just a week after New Horizons reached Pluto. Adam is Chief Engineer, Electrical Systems, at the UK imaging company e2v. I love all things space-related, and one of the topics that came up whilst we were blowing the froth of the top of a few well-deserved cold beers was the fact that e2v's imaging sensors were used in the Rosetta space probe that performed the first successful landing on a comet in November 2014.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as seen by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera (courtesy NASA).

Adam noted that e2v's imaging sensors were actually whizzing all around the solar system. "For example," he said, "our sensors are the ones being used on New Horizons to take the photos of Pluto." Well, I was so excited to hear this nugget of knowledge that I almost bought another round of beer (but I restrained myself because it was Adam's turn).

A detail view of the sunset on Pluto shows rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet high (courtesy NASA).

Following ESC, Adam introduced me to Paul Jerram, Engineering Manager, Sensors, Space Imaging, and Steve Bowring, Principal Engineer, Design, Space Imaging. Paul and Steve told me that e2v actually provided two of the imaging sensors featured in New Horizons -- a "fairly standard" 1024×1024 pixel by 12-bits-per-pixel monochromatic CCD imager used in the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) system, and a custom imager used in the Ralph telescope (this is the one that's being used to take the pictures that are keeping us all riveted to our screens).

As an aside, unlike LORRIE, the name Ralph doesn’t stand for anything per se -- one of the experiments on New Horizons is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer called Alice. Designed after Alice, Ralph was named after Alice's husband on the 1950s American TV sitcom The Honeymooners, but we digress...

In the image below, we see Steve working on the imager used in Ralph. I'm a bit fuzzy about the nitty-gritty technical details, but my understanding is that this is a multispectral imager of 5K x 32 lines; also that it includes two panchromatic (black and white) lines that are sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light; two visible light color lines (red and blue, from which green can be inferred when used in conjunction with the panchromatic data); two lines that are sensitive to infrared, and one line that can be used to detect methane (don’t ask me how).

Steve Bowring at his design station with the New Horizons design on the screen (courtesy e2v).

One of the color sensors use in Ralph (courtesy e2v).

Below we see an enhanced color image of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, which has a diameter just over half that of Pluto (the other moons are Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra). In fact, Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered to be a binary system on the basis that the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body.

An enhanced color image of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon (courtesy NASA).

I think it goes without saying that the Rosetta and New Horizons missions are two of the biggest science stories in recent times. I asked Steve what it feels like to have worked on a project like this. He replied that whenever he sees a photograph of Pluto and its moons that was captured using the sensor he designed, he can't help himself from thinking about all of the people around the world looking at that photograph. He finished by saying in a contemplative tone: "It's quite an amazing thought, really." I agree; it is an amazing thought, as is the fact that New Horizons is now heading onwards and outwards to perform a fly-by of Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69, which event is expected to take place on 1 January 2019, at which time these little scamps will be a mind-boggling 43.4 AU from the Sun. I don't know about you, but I -- for one -- can’t wait!

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