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New Horizons Operator and Penn State Alumna to Speak Tonight

by on December 01, 2015 6:00 AM
University Park, PA

After a nine-year journey, the New Horizons space probe reached Pluto and its moon this summer with a Penn State Schreyer Honors College graduate operating it.

Penn State alumna Katie Bechtold will be in 222 IST Building at 7 p.m. tonight to share her experiences with New Horizons and the journey of the space probe, as well as her time at Penn State. 

Bechtold graduated in 2000 from Penn State’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering and earned a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University before joining the New Horizons team in 2007, a year after the probe’s launch to Pluto.

While many people first learned of the space probe’s journey this summer, the New Horizons team had been hard at work since the probe launched in 2006. 

“We’re the ones who make contact with the spacecraft, sending commands and information to it, and receiving science and ‘housekeeping’ data,” Bechtold said. “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.”

Throughout the probe’s journey, there has been great competition for time with the Deep Space Network’s antennas, which meant negotiations as well as late night and weekend work hours.

While Bechtold and five others control the flight control of the space probe, other team members are in charge of creating command sequences to the spacecraft and testing them to make sure they are not demanding more power than the its generator creates.

Since graduation, Bechtold has worked as a real-time spacecraft flight controller at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) with the mission operations team that supports New Horizons. Although more into engineering than science, she has always been interested in space exploration. Her engineering abilities helped her at APL where her first role was developing and maintaining an artificial intelligence software that could predict geomagnetic activity based on data from Earth orbiting satellites. 

She then wrote the software used to help run the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, MESSENGER. This was also her first time writing software that was used on a spacecraft. After, Bechtold took part in writing some of the software used on the New Horizons space probe.

“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.” 

The New Horizons spacecraft is now heading towards a Kuiper Belt Object, which should be reached in Jan. 2019.

Jaime is a fall news intern for and a junior at Penn State.
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