Buckeye engineers play a role in New Horizons’ Pluto mission


Photo of the high gain antenna dish being tested in the ElectroScience Laboratory
Testing the high gain antenna dish in the ElectroScience Laboratory
After a nine-year journey through space, NASA’s New Horizons space probe will finally reach its destination and begin studying Pluto in detail for the first time in human history.

The probe’s most prominent feature was partially designed, constructed and tested at The Ohio State University ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL) beginning in 2002.

Ohio State engineering alumni Ron Schulze and Willie Theunissen, now distinguished engineers with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHAPL) and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, respectively, both played an integral part in the New Horizons mission. 

As JHAPL lead engineer for the high gain antenna dish project, Schulze coordinated its design and worked for months with Theunissen, as well as Ohio State faculty and staff at ESL’s anechoic chamber. Considered the largest university-owned anechoic chamber worldwide, ESL’s facility is 60 feet by 40 feet by 20 feet and operates from 400 MHz up to 100 GHz.

High gain antennas provide focused and narrow radio wave beam widths, allowing for more precise targeting of radio signals. The antenna, created and designed in a partnership between the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Ohio State, remains one of seven instruments on the probe currently gathering scientific information being transmitted back to Earth. Without the dish, NASA could not communicate or receive signals from New Horizons. 

ESL Research Scientist Teh-Hong Lee, put the project in some perspective. 

“Because a spacecraft is spinning while it is traveling, they need to maintain the accuracy of pointing the antenna to the Earth. I was told they required the accuracy of pointing to the Earth at .001 degrees. It’s amazing that they can achieve that,” Lee said. “We were also very excited that our antenna facility could accommodate their need.” 

As Schulze explained in his high gain dish research paper, “At a Pluto-like distance of 3 billion miles, the HGA boresight mispointed by 0.2 degrees, would miss Earth by over 10 million miles. The antenna beam width makes up for it, however.”

Still employed with APL today, Schulze said the project remains a highlight of his career. It also gave him the unique opportunity to work alongside his mentors as a peer after studying at ESL from 1989 to 1991.

"The high gain antenna is the most prominent feature on the spacecraft," he said. "It is the last piece of hardware that the images and science from Pluto will touch before the data is received on Earth. It better work!"

ESL researchers also contributed to NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, which launched in January 2015 for a minimum three-year mission to measure the moisture in the top two inches of soil and produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space.

One of the largest radio frequency and optics research laboratories in the world, the ElectroScience Laboratory conducts research in all aspects of electromagnetic and RF technologies, including satellite and ultra-wide-bandwidth communications, optics, remote sensing, ground penetrating radar systems, antenna engineering and more. Researchers are also pursuing a number of emerging areas, such as those related to bioelectromagnetics, metamaterials, polymers and packaging, micro-device modeling and multi-physics engineering.

Launched on Jan. 19, 2006, the New Horizons probe had essentially been in hibernation mode for the past several years. Hibernation, in this case, means traveling at speeds of 31,000 miles per hour and nearly one million miles a day. Communication with the probe was enacted periodically to change its direction. NASA predicts the probe will fly closest to Pluto on July 14, 2015, before heading out to explore the frozen outskirts of the solar system beyond.

Read more about the ElectroScience Laboratory’s work with the New Horizons probe on the ECE website.

Contributed by Ryan Horns, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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