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[Image above] An image of Pluto snapped during New Horizon’s flyby. Credit: JHUAPL

NASA’s New Horizons mission, which recently provided the first glimpse of dwarf planet Pluto, wouldn’t have been successful without ceramics.

“I am happy and proud to announce an accomplishment by Surmet that almost went unnoticed,” Suri Sastri—president and CEO of Surmet, and ACerS corporate member—says in a PR Web press release. “By now, you all are aware of the ‘out of this world’ performance of the NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons and LORRI (the telescopic camera snapping the images), that sent back unbelievably clear high-resolution pictures of Pluto and its moon from three billion miles away. What most of you are not aware of is that Surmet contributed the critically enabling mirror-surface technology for the New Horizons mission.”

The New Horizons mission launched back in 2006 and has been zooming through space ever since. Just last month the spacecraft reached its closest point (7,750 mi) to former-planet Pluto and snapped the first-ever images of the Milky Way’s favorite dwarf planet.

Surmet developed an amorphous silicon coating technology that allowed New Horizon’s telescope mirror to capture beautifully ultrahigh resolution images so far from home.

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Images of Pluto snapped by LORRI during New Horizon’s flyby. Credit: JHUAPL


“Strongly adherent, amorphous and supremely homogeneous (at an atomic scale), the coating applied to the mirror substrate of the telescope allows for single point diamond turning and finish polishing, meeting the most stringent wavefront specifications required for capturing ultrahigh resolution images from outer space,” the release states.

Surmet’s silicon coating technology is an integral component of a particular instrument aboard the New Horizons spacecraft—its long range reconnaissance imager (LORRI). LORRI is just one of seven instruments aboard New Horizons.

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Seven instruments are aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: JHUAPL

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (Laurel, Md.) developed LORRI. According to the lab’s website, “LORRI, the “eagle eyes” of New Horizons, is a panchromatic high-magnification imager, consisting of a telescope with an 8.2-inch (20.8-centimeter) aperture that focuses visible light onto a charge-coupled device (CCD). It’s essentially a digital camera with a large telephoto telescope—only fortified to operate in the cold, hostile environs near Pluto.”

LORRI, designed to study geology and provide high-resolution images of the places New Horizons will go, weighs just 19.4 pounds and pulls an average 5.8 watts of power from the New Horizons spacecraft.

“LORRI has no color filters or moving parts—operators take images by pointing the LORRI side of the spacecraft directly at their target. The instrument’s innovative silicon carbide construction keeps its mirrors focused through the extreme temperature dips New Horizons experiences on the way to, through, and past the Pluto system,” the JHUAPL website adds.

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Technicians at JHUAPL install LORRI on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Head over here to see some additional images that LORRI has snapped from its recent rendezvous with Pluto. And for more information about the spacecraft itself, check out this New Horizons fact sheet.

Another Surmet technology—UltraC diamond-like carbon coating—has previously ventured into space aboard the Hubble Telescope, as integral technology for that telescope’s titanium cryocooler component for its infrared imaging sensors.

“To know that we had a critical role in helping uncover and discover the vastness of the universe and its mysteries is indeed mind-boggling and immensely satisfying,” Sastri adds in the release. “We are grateful and humbled by the opportunity to contribute to NASA’s efforts and those of its able contractors, both large and small.”