Satellite Tool Kit (STK) data analysis software
Analytical Graphics (AGI)
Exton, PA

NASA’s New Horizons mission sent a probe on a nine-year journey to image and map the surface compositions of Pluto and its moon Charon. The probe will look back at Earth and the Sun while flying through Pluto’s and Charon’s shadows. By measuring distortions in the light waves from the Sun and radio waves beamed from Earth, scientists will learn volumes about the makeup of these bodies and about Pluto’s dynamic atmosphere.

According to mission designers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, MD, the probe must travel through a 186-mile-wide space to accomplish its scientific objectives. The boundaries of this maneuver are comparable to that of a string threading through the eye of a needle. Adding to the complexity, Pluto’s highly elliptical orbit makes each potential missed launch day expensive in terms of energy requirements.

Throughout the journey, mission designers at APL will use Satellite Tool Kit (STK), a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) analysis software, to design trajectory correction maneuvers that will keep the probe on track in its journey to the outer rim of the solar system. In planning the mission, APL also used the software to determine the mission’s launch windows, how to propel the spacecraft three billion miles from Earth to its target, and time the journey so that Jupiter’s gravity could grab the spacecraft and sling it in the direction of Pluto.

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