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Interview with Glen Fountain, Project Manager, New Horizons
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Interview with Glen Fountain, Project Manager, New Horizons

Bruce Buckingham: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. We have ignition and liftoff of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on a decade-long voyage to visit the planet Pluto, and then beyond!

George Diller: Bound for the outer reaches of the solar system, NASA's New Horizons mission has sparked our imagination to wonder, what lies ahead?

I'm George Diller from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to visit Pluto and is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program.

Glen Fountain, New Horizons mission project manager from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, stopped by the NASA Direct studio at Kennedy Space Center recently to talk about the mission.

Diller: Glen, could you describe the spacecraft -- for instance, its size, weight and back-up systems?

Glen Fountain: Yeah, the spacecraft is about the size of grand piano, a very grand piano, you might say, with a circular dish on top of it. So, think of a grand piano with a circular dish about as wide as I’m tall -- a little over 6 feet, 6 to 7 feet -- and it weighs about 1,000 pounds, so it’s a little heavier than a grand piano.

Diller: What are a few unique characteristics about the New Horizons spacecraft that may differ from any others previously designed?

Fountain: You've got to remember that it takes nine-and-half years to even get to where we want to take the mission. So we need a highly reliable system. So, we have built into the electronics nearly two of everything. We are redundant. We have two guidance control processors, computers. We have two command and data handling processors. We have two solid-state recorders. Even if there is a failure, you can switch from one to the other.

Diller: What kind of data will the instrumentation be providing?

Fountain: Well, there are seven instruments on the spacecraft. They will be taking images. We have basically three instruments that will take images of the planet in various colors. And we will have spectra -- from the ultraviolet through the visible, and into the infrared. We will also have various resolutions. The highest-resolution instrument is called LORRI, for Long-Range Reconnaissance Instrument. It will allow us, at closest approach to Pluto, to be able to take images with the size of the pixel to be 50 meters. The pixels in the Hubble images are 500 kilometers. So we are going to go from 500 kilometers of imaging resolution on Pluto, to 50 meters with New Horizons. We want to understand the interaction of the solar wind with Pluto. We’ll understand some other things about the interaction of that atmosphere with that solar wind with two instruments that are plasma instruments --one called PEPSSI and one called SWAP, for Solar Wind at Pluto. So those are the primary instruments. The last instrument is called the Student Dust Counter. It’s actually built by a group of college students from the University of Colorado. And it’s going to measure the dust in the solar system as we go from the Earth to Pluto and beyond.

Diller: What are some of the challenges about building a launch vehicle and spacecraft to go to Pluto?

Fountain: Some of the challenges of this mission, for the spacecraft, is how we are going to get the power to run the spacecraft at these far distances. For this mission, we are so far away that the energy from the sun, the intensity of the sunlight, is less than one one-thousands of the intensity of the Earth. So that means we need a new energy source, and one that NASA has used a number of times is a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. This provides the power, so it’s a different way of interacting with the system. And we have a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or RTG for short, that will power the spacecraft. And then we're making use of some new technologies. The last one is how we deal with the thermal issues. You can think about, okay, we are out at Pluto, the amount of energy we get from the sun is less that one one-thousandths of what we get on the Earth. So it must be awfully cold, and indeed Pluto is very cold. How do you keep the spacecraft warm? Well, our thermal engineers have used a very ingenious technique...so we can actually keep the spacecraft at very modest room temperatures, just a little bit cooler than a good, cold, air-conditioned room, which the electronics love, and do that easily on around 100 watts, and keep the spacecraft nicely, comfortably warm. So that's one of the interesting things we are going about designing the spacecraft for this mission.

Diller: Is there anything you'd like to add?

Fountain: One of the exciting aspects that this mission allows us to do is, again, it's in this grand way that the people in the United States have thought about the world and exploring. We have gone to all but one of the classic nine planets in our solar system that the United States has been the first to be there. So we're completing that list of discoveries of the solar system with this mission. And it is exciting to be part of that. It’s exciting to be able to talk to people about this continued sense of exploration that this mission is continuing for the United States. So, that's one of the great satisfactions for me in being a part of this mission and the team that is making it all happen. Diller: Thank you, Glen.

Thank you for listening to this podcast from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I'm George Diller.

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