Eighty-five years after Clyde Tombaugh, 22, discovered Pluto, Ralph—New Horizon’s minuscule but power-packed multi-spectral camera suite—is providing a treasure trove of data about the King of the Kuiper Belt. Launched in January 2006, Ralph, named after Jackie Gleason’s character on the Honeymooners, was designed, built and tested in 22 months. That’s a record-breaking speed when you consider that Alan Stern and the Southwest Research Institute’s (SRI) engineering team spent the better part of a decade developing a disposable camera that could survive solar radiation and temperature fluctuations in space.
A Ship in a Bottle
So how did the SRI’s team build a camera that’s rewriting the book on Pluto? They used a technique called “cold optics.” Because dissimilar materials shrink at varying rates when the temperature dips, the SRI team constructed Ralph’s mirrors and chassis out of the same lightweight material (diamond cut aluminum) assuring that the instrument’s focal length would stay the same during its almost 5 billion mile journey.
Ralph’s “eye prescription” is a nonadjustable, 75mm glass lens at f/8.7. This made him extremely sensitive to sunlight and reflective light— even just a glimpse from the moon or Earth could destroy his light detector. As a result, the SRI team “blindfolded” Ralph during the launch. They programmed his aperture to open only after it passed Mars. However, Pluto’s light is about 1,000 times dimmer than Earth’s. Furthermore, its dark side is only lit by Charon’s reflection of the sun. The SRI team tackled these issues by building Ralph to be a remote sensing powerhouse that can capture 250 meters per pixel.
They also equipped the camera with three panchromatic (black-and-white) and four polychromatic (color) imagers, which have telescopic resolution almost a dozen times better than the human eye. To top it off, Ralph runs on approximately 7 watts (the amount of energy used to power an incandescent nightlight) and weighs 23 pounds. He’s basically a ship in a bottle!
To Pluto and Beyond
Nearly 2 years after its launch, Ralph passed Jupiter using its gravity for a Nascar-like speed boost that shaved three years off its travel time. It also snapped dozen of pictures: the aftermath of a volcanic eruption on Jupiter’s moon lo, dust and boulders swirling through Jupiter’s rings and a photo of Jupiter’s “Little Red Spot,” an infant storm that’s slowly changing colors.
On July 14, 2015, New Horizon finally made its Pluto flyby. Ralph collected over 50 gigabytes of data about Pluto and Charon, but galactic Internet speed is slow. The New Horizons probe only transmits 1-4 kilobytes of data per second. While that information travels at the speed of light, it still takes 5 hours to travel from the outskirts of our solar system to the NASA’s main frame. NASA has only collected 5 percent of Ralph’s data. Even so, Ralph has changed the way we view Pluto, the misfit of the Milky Way, and its satellites.
The surface of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, hasn’t been battered by meteors. This means that Charon is a young planet. Could this mean that the other outer planets are younger than we originally thought? Ralph’s pictures show that Mordor, Charon’s North Pole, is dark and polygon-shaped. To its south, there are cliffs, troughs and canyons that are 3 to 6 miles deep. The area is then followed by a smooth surface. Scientists tout that there’s been recent resurfacing in that area. In short, Charon is still active.
Pluto also hasn’t been assaulted by meteors, which is odd considering it’s constantly being bombarded by objects inside of the Kuiper Belt. Its surface is covered with a layer of haze made out of methane, nitrogen and other volatile ices. 100 million-year-old mountains that are 2,174 miles high and geologically active dot the terrain. Scientists speculate that they’re formed from a combination of water and ice. It’s also likely that the cores of Charon and Pluto are radioactive.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until July 2016 for Pluto’s and Charon’s data to flow in. Ralph, however, is drifting towards the Kuiper Belt to snap pictures of other dwarf planets like Makemake and Eris. Ralph’s mission is set to infinity and beyond.