2017 George W. Goddard Award

Team that built optical instruments for Pluto flyby receives SPIE annual award.

01 April 2017

The optical cameras and spectrometers developed for NASA’s New Horizons mission to explore Pluto and the outer reaches of our solar system represent the most sophisticated instruments of their kind. After a 3-billion-mile journey of almost 10 years, scientists across the world celebrated history in July 2015 when the spacecraft flew close enough to Pluto to capture thousands of first-ever, high-resolution images, spectra, and particle data from the distant dwarf planet and the Kuiper Belt.

The 39 scientists from eight organizations that made up the New Horizons Optical Instrumentation Team have reason to celebrate again this year as the winners of the 2017 SPIE George W. Goddard Award.

The team, led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), pushed the boundaries of space-based optical technology by designing and developing a suite of high-capability instruments that could withstand the freezing temperatures and low-light conditions of deep space, as well as meet the weight and power constraints needed for the years-long voyage.

This new generation of optical instruments that returned stunning images of Pluto’s icy mountains and dynamic atmosphere included Alice, a vacuum UV imaging spectrograph; Ralph, a visible color imager and an IR spectral imager; and the LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a panchromatic high-resolution visible imager.

Together, the three instruments weighed less than 24 kg and operated on less than 15 watts. In fact, the entire science payload of seven instruments fit inside a spacecraft the size of a grand piano.

The data obtained from the three optical instruments during a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons “have revolutionized our understanding of the Pluto system,” said Carly Howett, senior research scientist and outer solar system section manager at SwRI. The New Horizons findings “turned this once remote and unknown world into one that continues to inspire and delight all of humankind,” she said.

In addition to SwRI, the other organizations who collaborated on developing these instruments were SPIE corporate members Ball Aerospace and Materion Barr Precision Optics, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, SSG Precision Optronics, Siegmund Scientific, and Corning.

Bill Gibson and Mark Tapley of SwRI served as optical instrument manager and science payload systems engineer, respectively.

The optical instruments aboard New Horizons captured images showing that Pluto is younger, slightly larger, colder, and far more complex than had previously been thought. Seven months after the launch of New Horizons in 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded the status of Pluto to a “dwarf planet.” Earlier this year, a group of NASA scientists proposed a new definition of what constitutes as a planet that would allow Pluto to return to its former status.

The Alice imaging spectrometer, developed by SwRI, studied the composition of Pluto’s atmosphere and was designed to operate in two modes. One mode measures UV emissions from atmospheric constituents; the other detects atmospheric constituents by the amount of sunlight they absorb. This unique method allows the instrument to measure even traces of atmospheric gases.

Additionally, Alice’s innovative design gives the instrument a higher resolution for the same mass and less power as its earlier counterparts. For example, Alice has 32,000 pixels compared to two pixels for a similar instrument on the Voyager spacecraft.

Alice Imaging spectrograph.

The Ralph instrument, developed by Ball Aerospace, the Goddard Space Flight Center, and SwRI in just 22 months, provided most of the color images and global composition mapping of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. A sensitive, three-mirror telescope feeds light into the instrument’s suite of eight detectors.

Ralph is specially designed to collect high resolution, color data equivalent to taking a panoramic image with a 42-megapixel camera while being subjected to extreme cold and radiation.

In order to produce images in light levels 1000 times fainter than daylight on Earth, the instrument team designed a hinged lens cover for the telescope, the only moving part on the instrument.

A Ball Aerospace employee working on the Ralph instrument.

The LORRI instrument, developed by the JHUAPL, provided high-resolution, long-distance monochrome images of Pluto upon approach, playing a critical role in navigating the spacecraft’s course of travel. It measured Pluto’s diameter at 1473 miles (2370 km).

To ensure that LORRI’s mirrors would stay focused despite extreme temperature dips, the team utilized silicon carbide (SiC) for the instrument structure and mirrors, making LORRI the first reaction-bonded SiC telescope to deliver high-quality, visible imaging for a deep space mission.

The SiC structure allowed the instrument’s focus to remain unchanged during massive temperature changes and eliminated the need for focus adjustment mechanisms over various thermal conditions.

LORRI, a long-range reconnaissance imager, is a 1000 × 1000-pixel sensor that, in combination with a telescopic camera, delivers monochrome images and high-resolution geological data. LORRI measured Pluto’s diameter at 1473 miles (2370 km).

Together, the New Horizons instruments delivered stunning images that captivate attention and interest from across the globe and provide a treasure trove of data for the scientific community to analyze for years to come.

The Ralph instrument combines panchromatic and color imaging capabilities with IR imaging spectroscopy.

“The Alice, Ralph, and LORRI instruments carried on New Horizons represent technical excellence in its highest form,” said Michael D. Griffin, chairman and CEO of Schafer, who previously served as head of the Space Department at the JHUAPL where the spacecraft was built. Griffin was also the NASA administrator when New Horizons was launched in 2006.

With an unusually compressed schedule of four years from funding to launch, “the team developed innovative strategies to ensure that the instruments would survive their long, cold, dark journey to the outer rim of the solar system,” he said. Griffin called their work “a feat never before accomplished and which is unlikely to be seen again within the lifetime of anyone now alive.”

SPIE will present the 2017 George W. Goddard Award to team members in August at SPIE Optics + Photonics.


The New Horizons Optical Instrumentation Team includes seven SPIE members.

The team was led by Bill Gibson, optical instrument manager at SwRI, and Mark Tapley, science payload systems engineer, also at SwRI.

Members of the Alice instrument team were Alan Stern, John Scherrer, John Stone, Greg Dirks, Leslie Young, Maarten Versteeg, Joel Parker, and SPIE member Michael Davis of SwRI, the late Dave Slater of SwRI, and SPIE member Ossy Siegmund of Siegmund Scientific (SS).

Members of the Ralph instrument team were Stern, Scherrer, Stone, Dirks, and SwRI colleagues John Andrews, Cathy Olkin, and Ed Weigle; Ball Aerospace employees Jim Contreras, Derek Sabatke, Pei Huang, SPIE member Jim Baer, and the late Lisa Hardaway; Stuart McMuldroch, formerly of Ball Aerospace; SPIE member Jeff Santman of Corning; George Alan and Tom Mooney of Materion Barr Precision Optics (MB); and Dennis Reuter and Allen Lunsford of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).

On the LORRI instrument team were Matt Grey, Tom Magee, Kim Cooper, Hugo Darlington, Andy Cheng, Harold Weaver, John Boldt, John Hayes, and SPIE members Andy Mastandrea, Kevin Heffernan, and Steven Conard of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; Deepak Sampath of SSG Precision Optronics; and Kris Kosakowski, formerly of SSG.

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