Corning Innovation Shedding New Light on Pluto | Optical Physics | Corning

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Pluto Mission

Optically precise surface on diamond-turned mirrors help New Horizons capture historic photos of outer solar system

Scientists are learning more about the  mysterious outer regions of the solar system, thanks in part to Corning’s strong capabilities in optical physics and surface technologies.

A Corning-made optical assembly was a key component in the Ralph imaging system aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. In July of 2015, the space probe – after having traveled more than 3 billion miles over 9 ½ years – made a historic fly-by of Pluto.

The images highlighted details of the bright heart-shaped region on the dwarf planet’s icy surface, as well as other terrain features that shed light on the geological history of Pluto and its large moon, Charon.

Special color filters highlight the diversity of surface composition and how molecular make-up of icy masses reacts to radiation in space.

Aerospace experts said the images help unlock a new generation of discovery.

“This is a historic win for science and exploration,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after the successful fly-by on July 14. “We’ve truly, once again, raised the bar of human potential.”

Corning’s contribution to the imaging system was a set of three highly engineered aluminum mirrors and a metal housing specifically designed to withstand the harsh environment of deep space. The mirrors precisely capture the low levels of light reflecting off the dwarf planet’s surface, then feed it into a powerful, high-resolution imaging system.

That’s how the Ralph imager, built by NASA contractor Ball Aerospace, produced images showing a world with varying degrees of brightness and strong atmospheric cycles like surface snow.

Once researchers have analyzed the imaging data and learned more about geological landforms on Pluto and its moons – a process that is taking well over a year – they will have a deeper understanding of how natural processes like volcanic eruptions may reshape the landscape.

Top-flight mirrors

Producing low-scatter, high-precision, space-flight capable optics and assemblies is a specialty of the Corning operation in Keene, N.H. The team has many years of experience testing such components under very extreme conditions – representative of what the components and assembly encounter during launch and while in operation in space.

Of particular significance is the Keene team’s expertise in diamond turning – or, more specifically, single-point diamond machining – the high-precision machining method that generates the specialized optical surface. Operators spin a mirror substrate on a lathe, and cut a smooth surface with a diamond tool perpendicular to the spin axis.

The result is a mirror surface with optical performance that is minimally sensitive to temperature and resistant to thermal gradients. This, in turn, allows the Ralph imager to respond passively to temperature gradients, ensuring it is always in focus. The mirrors are designed to be lightweight, and enable the Ralph imager – weighing only 23 pounds – to run with low power.