June 29, 2015 – Carrying out a precise navigation operation involving the fastest spacecraft ever launched to the farthest destination ever explored, the KinetX Aerospace Space Navigation and Flight Dynamics team is homing in on its narrow target as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft makes its final approach to Pluto.
Scheduled to fly by the planet on July 14th at approximately 7:50 a.m. EDT at a distance of just 12,500 km (about 7,750 miles) from Pluto’s surface, the spacecraft built and operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on January 19, 2006. KinetX Aerospace is the first commercial company to navigate any spacecraft to distant planetary bodies.
“The success of the mission depends upon hitting a narrow window of space at the planned time of New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto,” said Dr. Bobby Williams, who leads the KinetX Space Navigation and Flight Dynamics group in Simi Valley, California. “For instance, if the aim-point or close approach time is missed by more than the maximum allowed deviation, the spacecraft’s instruments might take images of a blank sky instead of Pluto or one of its five currently known moons.”
Serving as the primary navigation team using custom optical navigation software built in-house, KinetX Aerospace engineers have been working closely with the New Horizons team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and the independent navigation team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Earth-based radio tracking of the spacecraft’s trajectory is combined with optical navigation, where images of Pluto and its moons are taken by the spacecraft’s cameras and analyzed to determine where the spacecraft is relative to its expected position. Using those calculations, trajectory-correction maneuvers are determined to return to the designed aim-point at Pluto.
After July 4, maneuvers will no longer be feasible due to other onboard activities associated with the approaching flyby. The KinetX Aerospace navigation team will still be hard at work using radio tracking and optical navigation data to compute how far off the spacecraft is from the planned arrival time at Pluto. Timing of events in the flight plans will then be shifted to keep in synch with the spacecraft’s intended position relative to Pluto and its moons.
Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, recently told Sky & Telescope readers, “The expert engineers working on the navigation team of New Horizons are some of my heroes on the project. Imagine: they are driving New Horizons to thread the imaginary eye of a needle in space above Pluto by remote control from Earth that’s three billion miles and four and a half light-hours away. Without them, much of the science of the Pluto flyby would be lost. Thanks to their work, we expect to arrive at Pluto closest approach to within just eight minutes of the expected time after a journey of nine and a half years and less than 500 miles of the expected position error.”
KinetX Aerospace was also the lead organization responsible for navigating the MESSENGER spacecraft (also built and operated by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab) – the first to orbit Mercury. And when the Lockheed Martin-built OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launches in September 2016, KinetX, working with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will be responsible for navigating that spacecraft to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu and returning a sample to Earth.
KinetX Aerospace is the only non-government group to lead a deep space navigation effort with NASA.