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On its way to Pluto, New Horizons became a tool for education like no other probe

Members of the student dust counter team pose next to the finished instrument before it was launched on the spacecraft in 2006. The white suits are worn to protect the instrument from dust, dirt and dead skin that could come off human bodies. (University of Colorado at Boulder, LASP)

The past few days have been a bit distracting for Andrew Poppe.

Back when he was a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he was in charge of one of the seven New Horizons instruments that collect data from outer space. Now, as a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who's no longer part of the mission, Poppe has found himself glued to the Internet, checking for updates on the spacecraft as it approached Pluto earlier this week.

"It's certainly very exciting, but it's weird to think 9½ years have already gone by," Poppe said.

[Pluto’s surface surprisingly full of mountains and lacking craters]

His work on the historical mission was, in essence, a school project. He spent five years  working with the instrument, called the student dust counter — the first student-made instrument ever attached to a planetary probe.

As a student, he got used to always being the youngest person in the room. And when he graduated in 2011, he handed off his duties to the current instrument operator, Jamey Szalay.

"I'm thrilled to be a part of it," said Szalay, who had the chance to go to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab to witness the mission's flyby. "It's a lot of responsibility, but it's great to be in the drivers seat."

Operating the student dust counter means keeping track of any grain of space dust that comes in contact with the instrument during the four billion-mile journey to the unexplored dwarf planet and beyond.

Inside Johns Hopkins’s Applied Physics Laboratory

HANDOUT PHOTO--Aerial photo of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. Photo by Ed Whitman/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (ed whitman/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

The information gives us a map of dust distribution throughout our planetary neighborhood, but it's more than just a picture of how dirty the space around the solar system is. Dust can offer a gravitational footprint of what's moving around — like the cosmic version of the dust kicked up on the highway by trucks. While dust at first acted like a curtain that made the stars we wanted to observe more faint, astronomers have discovered important clues to where things are located and how they move.

"It's another way to learn what's out there," said Mihaly Horanyi, principal investigator for the instrument and a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

[After a wait, spacecraft confirms that it survived close encounter]

The university proposed adding on the instrument at the very last minute, and Horanyi said there was skepticism at the time that they were trying to sneak an extra instrument onto the craft. With space flight going to the edge of the solar system, every ounce added to the craft counts. Still headquarters decided to take the instrument on, funded by money designated for NASA's educational outreach.

It's since been praised by mission leaders as an important way of generating interest of the mission among students, as well as offering some practical experience for those involved to go on and contribute back to the field of astronomy.

The instrument was designed to hold data in its own memory bank, so as to not interfere with other higher priority bits of information, such as photos. Data from the New Horizons' approach to Pluto will be sent back to Earth over the course of the next 16 months, but the latest dust data is expected to come later this week, Horanyi said.

[The heart-palpitating scene at the Pluto command center]

"It's nice to have an instrument, but there's another product: the careers," Horanyi said. "Everyone (who works on the project) gets the choice of their school."

Somewhere between 20 and 30 students have worked on the instrument, building it and writing reports on the data that is beamed back to Earth from billions of miles away.

"The experience was invaluable," said Poppe, who continues to study dust around the Pluto area and in the Kuiper Belt using the instrument. "I absolutely love the science — it confirmed my passion."

Read more:

For children of Pluto’s discoverer, New Horizons is a triumph

Why magician David Blaine showed up for the Pluto mission

NASA’s spacecraft made it to Pluto. Now what?

New data reveals that Pluto’s heart is broken

Scientists: Charon’s dark spot maybe ice from Pluto