Have you ever planned a road trip? If so, you know planning for unknowns can be difficult. Small unplanned events – accidents, emergencies, etc. – can have a major impact on even a short route. But what if you had to plan a route over 3 billion miles, where massive objects would cross your path at colossal speeds many times over? Dr. Yangping Guo did just that.
On January 19, 2006, NASA launched the New Horizon’s spacecraft – a half-ton probe designed to traverse the solar system from Earth to Pluto with a science payload that would allow unprecedented study of the dwarf planet. But the science was only possible if New Horizons reached its destination. Yangping Guo was the mission design lead for New Horizons – the person responsible for determining exactly how to make that flight happen. To make matters more interesting, Guo had to design a trajectory that did not rely on thrusters – rocket engines that could provide course corrections or additional speed. Instead, Guo designed a trajectory that would take New Horizons to Jupiter, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot the probe toward the outer reaches of the solar system. Her work earned her the APL’s Exceptional Award in 2006 and on July 14, 2015, thanks to Guo’s incredible efforts, New Horizons reached Pluto within 72 seconds of the estimated arrival time.
But in the years between New Horizon’s launch and arrival at Pluto, Guo did not rest on her laurels. She published numerous papers and reports on ways to reach other bodies in the solar system. She created the trajectory for Solar Probe Plus, creating a unique solution of having the probe use the gravity of Venus multiple times to make close fly-bys of the sun, which will allow it to pass 24 times over the course of its mission. She has also done work planning a mission to Uranus.
Guo earned her PhD in physics from The Catholic University of America, working on nuclear radiation and solid-state physics. She joined the Applied Physics Laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow.
Written by Nicole Hutchison