Hopkins Applied Physics Lab teams to develop instruments for asteroid-bound NASA missions

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County are among teams working on two new NASA space missions.

NASA officials announced Wednesday that the Lucy mission, bound for a series of asteroids near Jupiter, and Psyche, a spacecraft to explore the core of an unformed planet, were chosen from a short list of five proposals for solar system exploration.


"Elation" was how planetary scientist Hal Weaver described the announcement, which came as a surprise to the researchers at the North Laurel lab. The lab is developing one instrument for each mission.

With NASA's selections, the lab will once again be playing a role in ventures to explore the solar system and better understand how it formed. The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center will be overseeing the Lucy mission.

"All of that hard work we put into those last couple of years has paid off," Weaver said.

Last September, NASA had narrowed a pool of 27 planned missions to five, and over the past year, scientists dedicated to all of them had worked to refine their proposals.

In the end, the Hopkins lab's success on the New Horizons mission, which successfully flew by Pluto in 2015, helped the Lucy mission win approval. The robotic spacecraft will include newer versions of two instruments that were aboard New Horizons, including a Long Range Reconnaissance Imager that a Hopkins team will again oversee.

"That was a good story to tell in terms of reducing risk that you couldn't pull it off," Weaver said. "We've already done it once, and there were a couple of improvements we could make to the current version."

The APL instrument is expected to provide high-resolution images detailing the asteroids' geology. The primitive bodies, which it is scheduled to observe from 2025 to 2033, could help scientists better understand what happened during and soon after the formation of the solar system.

The Psyche mission, scheduled to launch in 2023 and arrive at its target in 2030, could provide similar insights by studying a very different asteroid.

While most asteroids are made of rock and ice, scientists believe one known as 16 Psyche is the exposed nickel-iron core of what could have developed into a planet.

Hopkins lab scientists will develop the Psyche spacecraft's Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer instrument, which will reveal the elemental composition of the asteroid and show what might be in the cores of planets like Earth and Mars.

The instrument will be adapted from a similar one aboard another successful NASA mission that the Hopkins lab managed — MESSENGER, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015.

Other instruments Hopkins scientists have sent aboard NASA missions include the Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument on the Cassini spacecraft exploring Saturn; the CRISM hyperspectral imager on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which helped detect water on the red planet; and the Low Energy Charged Particle detector on Voyager, which helped determine that the probe left the solar system in 2012.