New Horizons flight controller, Penn State alumna to speak Dec. 1

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This summer, as much of the country was learning about New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto and its moon, Katie Bechtold, a 2000 Schreyer Honors College and Penn State Department of Computer Science and Engineering graduate, was busy operating the space probe.

As a real-time spacecraft flight controller at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Bechtold has been on the mission operations team supporting New Horizons since 2007. Launched from Cape Canaveral in 2006, its trajectory to Pluto took nine years. But Bechtold and the rest of the team still had a lot of work to do during its journey.

Bechtold, who earned her master’s degree in computer science from the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, will speak about her work and her Penn State experience at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 1 in 113 IST Building.

“We’re the ones who make contact with the spacecraft, sending commands and information to it, and receiving science and ‘housekeeping’ data,” explained Bechtold. “We use the largest antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network for these contacts, so in some ways we’re the liaisons between the science operations staff, who decide exactly what they want each instrument onboard to do and when, and the Deep Space Network.”

She explained that there are many spacecraft missions competing for time on the Deep Space Network’s antennas, so the New Horizons team has to negotiate for time, meaning they often go to work at night or on weekends in addition to weekdays.

“There are about six of us who do the ‘real-time’ — the flight-time delay is almost five hours each way — flight control part of mission operations,” said Bechtold. “Other members of the team come up with command sequences to send to the spacecraft, analyze our command sequences to make sure we don’t try to use more power than our spacecraft’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator generates, and run the command sequences on a spacecraft simulator to test them before we uplink them.”

Bechtold, a Johnstown native, began working at APL right after graduation. She said she’d always been interested in space exploration, though she had more of an engineering bent than a scientific one, which made her perfect for her role at APL. Her first task at Johns Hopkins was developing and maintaining some artificial intelligence software to predict geomagnetic activity based on data from a few Earth-orbiting satellites. She said the AI class she took at Penn State definitely helped her understand the neural network concepts she was implementing.

After that she wrote the software to run the X-ray spectrometer on MESSENGER, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.

“This was the first time I’d written software that would run on a spacecraft. One of the most interesting parts of that development effort was that, like the software developers for the other instruments on that spacecraft, I wrote the software in a programming language called Forth, which turned out to be surprisingly elegant and efficient at the same time,” said Bechtold. “Throughout my education at Penn State, my fellow students and I were called on to learn new programming languages in the course of learning important computer science concepts and research areas, like learning LISP in the artificial intelligence class, learning ML in a functional programming class, and many others.”

After her work for MESSENGER, Bechtold was then charged with writing some of the software that runs the command and data handling processor onboard the New Horizons spacecraft. She said she was working with a team of more experienced developers writing a large application in C, and said the software engineering curriculum at Penn State proved useful to her in this development effort.

“Over the years it took to get to Pluto, we’d become so accustomed to thinking of the summer of 2015 as being in some vague distant future that it almost seemed unreal when it actually arrived,” she said. “It was the thrill of a lifetime to operate a spacecraft on the first-ever encounter with Pluto and its moons. The pictures we’ve been getting back have been stunning, and since we’re only getting them back at a few thousand bits per second when we get time on the DSN, we’ll continue to get them and other science data from the encounter for many months to come.”

New Horizons is now on a trajectory toward a Kuiper Belt Object, which it should reach in January of 2019. Bechtold’s team just completed a series of thruster burns to point it toward that region.

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Last Updated December 02, 2015