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  • Technologies from Ball, Corning, Photonis, SwRI Help Image Pluto
Jul 2015
BOULDER, Colo., July 17, 2015 — NASA's New Horizons mission used imaging and spectroscopy equipment to secure the highest-resolution images ever captured of the dwarf planet Pluto.

After traveling nearly 10 years and 3 billion miles, on July 14, New Horizons passed within 7000 miles of Pluto's icy surface before continuing into the unexplored region of the Kuiper Belt.

The Ralph instrument from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is one of three cameras aboard the spacecraft and is charged with creating the maps that detail Pluto, its moons and other Kuiper Belt objects. Ralph was designed to study the surface geology of the planet, as well as its atmosphere and temperature.


Diamond-turned mirrors used in the New Horizons spacecraft. Courtesy of Corning Inc.

The instrument incorporates diamond-turned mirrors and housing manufactured by Corning Inc. The assembly was designed to respond passively to temperature gradients, ensuring it remains in focus.

In an ode to the '50s TV sitcom "The Honeymooners," the instrument is named Ralph because it is coupled with a UV spectrometer named Alice.

Alice, developed by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) of San Antonio, Texas, is a highly miniaturized UV imaging spectrograph with more than 1000 times the data-gathering capability of older instruments, weighing less than 4 kg and drawing just 4 W of power.

The Alice instrument and the Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) module, both of which were used to study Pluto's atmosphere, features microchannel plates manufactured by Photonis Technologies SAS in the U.S. and France.

Also on board the spacecraft is the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, an instrument that provides high-resolution panchromatic imaging from 350 to 850 nm, as well as the Solar Wind Around Pluto instrument.

New Horizons has now entered the Kuiper Belt, which spans more than 1 billion miles past Neptune's orbit. The region is believed to harbor some 70,000 objects more than 60 miles in diameter and billions of comets, each containing materials created during our solar system's formation 4.5 billion years ago. The full data set from the New Horizons flyby will take more than a year to trickle back to Earth, due to the probe's extreme distance and limited power.

The spacecraft was built for NASA by SwRI and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

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