Essex-based e2v ‘overwhelmed’ at success of its role in New Horizons mission to Pluto

New Horizons scientist Hal Weaver, left, talks with Mark Holdridge, centre, and Mike Buckley as they

New Horizons scientist Hal Weaver, left, talks with Mark Holdridge, centre, and Mike Buckley as they await information from from the New Horizons spacecraft as it passed Pluto earlier this week. Photo: AP/Gail Burton - Credit: AP

Essex technology firm e2v says it is “overwhelmed” at the success of its imaging sensors on board NASA’s New Horizons space explorer which has just completed an historic flypast of the dwarf planet Pluto.

The Chelmsford-based company supplied supplied two sensors, one for colour images and one for high-resolution black and white pictures, for New Horizons, which was launched in January 2006 and has travelled more than three billion miles.

The first pictures relayed back to Earth following the flypast have revealed a major surprise – a range of mountains rising as high as 11,000ft above the surface of the icy planet.

The mountains are from no more than 100million years ago, mere youngsters relative to the 4.56bn-year age of the solar system, and may still be in the process of building, according to the New Horizons scientific team.

New Horizons is just one of more than 150 space projects in which e2v has been involved, with the list also including the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission, which successfully landed a probe ont o comet 67p in November last year.

Matt Perkins, president of space imaging at e2v, said: “At e2v we are overwhelmed to once again see our technology make history as our image sensors captured the first ever close-up pictures of Pluto.

“After travelling over three billion miles, our bespoke technology produced these glorious images that will help the science community discover more about this dwarf-planet and learn more about the origins of our solar system.

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“As the only UK company with significant involvement in the mission, we are proud of the part we have played and look forward to seeing what else our sensors discover as we receive more pictures over the coming months.”

The colour imager (known as Ralph) consists of seven different CCDs (Coupled Charged Devices) which together function as a single sensor. It is extremely sensitive, in order to cope with the low light conditions (Pluto recieves 1,000 times less sunlight than the Earth) and the high speed of the spacecraft (around 33,000 miles per hour).

The black and while telescopic camera (known as LORRI) has a single image sensor at its core, and is similar to the Navcam image sensor made by e2v for the Rosetta mission.

A major aspect of the delivery of e2v’s image sensors into any space programme is the testing required to ensure that they will survive the launch and operate to specification when needed.

This involves environmental testing to show that the sensor performance will not be damaged by shock, vibration, temperature extremes and the radiation that is encountered outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

This means that, besides the sensors which go into space, many more are produced and destructively tested to ensure that it will work as and when required.

Nasa experts base their youthful age estimate for the surface of Pluto on the lack of craters there. As with the rest of Pluto, this region covered by the images is thought to have been hit by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered, unless recent activity had given the region a “facelift”, erasing those pockmarks.

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

Pluto has also been shown to have a surprising Mars-like reddish hue, with an enigmatic heart-shaped feature on its surface.

Images from New Horizons also give remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. There is a canyon estimated to be four to six miles deep, plus a range of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles from left to right.

Again, there is a lack of craters, suggesting a relatively young surface that has been reshaped by geologic activity.