Pluto mission gets Swiss shield

New Horizons will survey Pluto's surface. J. Hopkins/Southwest Research Institute

One of Nasa's most ambitious space programmes, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, is set to head off into the solar system with some Swiss technology on board.

This content was published on January 17, 2006 - 07:58

Zurich-based Contraves Space is supplying the fairing that sits on top of the launcher, protecting the spacecraft as it accelerates through the Earth's atmosphere.

Nasa, the United States space agency, says the mission is designed to help understand planets known as ice dwarves by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto and one of its moons, Charon.

The probe will also venture into the Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation believed to hold thousands of comets and icy planetary objects.

The trip to Pluto will last at least nine years if New Horizons is launched between the scheduled dates of January 17 and February 14.

Beyond that launch window, the journey will not be completed before 2018 at best, despite the fact that the probe will be the fastest spacecraft ever to travel through the solar system.

Protection

An Atlas V rocket will launch New Horizons, giving it enough of a boost to reach speeds 100 times faster than a jet airliner. During the crucial lift-off phase, a 20-metre-long fairing developed by Contraves will protect the probe.

"The fairing is affected by heat generated by friction – up to 600 degrees Celsius – during the launch phase," said Contraves CEO Axel Deich. "It also has to withstand strong loads as the rocket accelerates."

Among the materials the Swiss firm uses to build its fairings is cork. Deich says this is mainly because cork, a thermal insulator, is lightweight, effective and cheaper than other materials.

Contraves has been building payload fairings since 1974, without recording a single failure to date.

The fairing, although built to normal specifications, still had to be adapted to accommodate part of the New Horizons probe. The spacecraft is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

In other words, the systems get their electricity through heat generated from a decaying radioactive source, in this case plutonium dioxide.

Given the nature of the power source, the fairing is only installed on the spacecraft at the last possible moment. As a result, it contains has a large access door.

Attracting attention

This first mission to Pluto and beyond has attracted widespread attention. But Deich told swissinfo that there is not unusual for Contraves.

"We always face the same kind of pressure, and the next mission is always the most important," he said.

"What was different this time was that we were working so closely with Nasa and Lockheed Martin - our direct customer - so we want everything to be better than 100 per cent."

According to Deich, the Swiss company has not faced extra pressure because of restructuring at Nasa.

The quality of the space agency's work and administration has been under intense scrutiny since the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere in February 2003.

For his part, the Contraves CEO says that although the firm's products, which account for around half of its sales, always function correctly, it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of failure.

"I think that you should not feel safe in the space business," he told swissinfo. "You should always follow the rule that mistrust leads to success."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

New Horizons best timeline:

Launch expected January-February 2006 from Florida (Kennedy Space Center).
Approach with Jupiter scheduled to occur between February 25- March 2, 2007, moving at about 21 kilometres per second.
Eight-year cruise through space towards Pluto arriving in 2015.
Further travel through the Kuiper Belt between 2016 and 2020.

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In brief

Contraves Space, which is part of the Unaxis group, supplies payload fairings for launch vehicles.

The company also develops and manufactures spacecraft structures and high-precision mechanisms for satellites.

It is headquartered in Zurich and employs approximately 300 staff, of which around half are engineers.

Sales reached SFr98 million ($76 million) in 2004.

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