‘s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has a long history of breaking new ground in technology, and its success in the space world comes from a simple approach: do it first, do it fast, and do it for less money than anyone else can.

Like many
government labs, APL was stood up during World War II. The U.S. Navy was having problems dealing with the Japanese kamikaze pilots, having to shoot as many as 2,000 rounds of ammunition to hit just one plane. The Navy came to
for a solution, and the university decided to start APL as a dedicated problem-solving lab. On that first project the lab invented a shell that would not explode until it was within the proximity of a plane, which became the genesis of smart fuse technology.

APL has been involved in space activity since before the beginning of orbital operations, taking the world’s first photographs of Earth from space aboard a V-2 rocket in 1946. APL also developed the first satellite navigation system for the Navy called Transit, which became the model for today’s GPS. The Navy needed to figure out a way to know instantly the exact position of its submarines as soon as they reached the surface so they could fire missiles with greater precision.

APL scientists knew the position of an orbiting satellite could be precisely calculated from Earth, so they figured satellites could be used to determine the exact position of something on Earth. The lab built prototype satellites and transitioned the technology to industry for production models. Many Transit satellites were launched, and while they no longer are needed for navigation, the Navy still uses some to monitor the ionosphere.

“We’re very big on critical contributions. We don’t want to be No. 2 or No. 3 because we are a not-for-profit organization, and prototyping and taking that risk to be the first is really the right spot for us,” said Cheryl Reed, APL’s civil space program development manager.

Today, the lab has found its space niche developing unique sensors and providing NASA with small- to medium-class satellites for exploratory missions, with approximately 15 percent of its funding going to these types of programs.

Planetary exploration satellites until recently had been big programs with big budgets, most of which were produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But in the 1990s, NASA began pursuing smaller missions again that could be done more frequently and broaden the scope of missions the agency attempted. APL has built 10 satellites that have launched in the last 12 years, one of which was the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft, which landed on an asteroid in 2001 and was the first spacecraft to visit a small body.

“The NEAR mission fit well with our model, which is being really innovative and using technology to get what our customer wants and doing it for lower cost with a faster turnaround time,” said Walt Faulconer, the lab’s area executive for civil space business.

The lab’s Messenger mission to Mercury is a prime example of how APL does things differently. Sending a satellite to orbit the closest planet to the sun was high on NASA’s priority list, but the mission was expected to cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

“NASA could never get the money to do it,” Faulconer explained. “We bid it at $440 million, and the reason we were able to do it was combining technology from other arenas.”

Instead of using a high-gain antenna like most deep space missions, APL went with phased slot array antennas that had been used for missile defense applications, making it a simpler and smaller spacecraft. To further drive down size and cost at the expense of time, APL decided to shrink the propulsion system and use gravitational assistance to achieve its Mercury orbit. After its 2004 launch, Messenger did one flyby of Earth and two flybys of Venus, and it will do three flybys of Mercury before reaching its final orbit in 2011.

The lab’s most recent space missions are the New Horizons and Stereo (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) missions, which both launched in 2006. New Horizons is on its way to the outer limits of the solar system where it will study the surface and atmospheric composition of Pluto and its moons before moving on to a similar study of the Kuiper Belt.

The Stereo mission consists of two identical satellites that were placed in the same orbital plane the Earth uses to circle the sun. One of the Stereo spacecraft orbits just ahead of the Earth in that plane, with the other one trailing behind in that same solar orbit. From these vantage points, they are providing the first ever three-dimensional stereoscopic views of the sun, which are helping scientists better understand coronal mass ejections, the powerful plumes of plasma emitted by the sun.

The lab also is involved heavily in missile defense, military space and classified space programs. The Midcourse Space Experiment was the APL’s last major national space security mission, designed with a suite of 11 sensors to study the launches and intercepts of ballistic missiles. APL’s future-oriented programs focus on technologies such as space radar, space situational awareness, space-based surveillance, hyperspectral applications and space-based laser communications.

Operationally responsive space is another area of concentration. With the help of satellite manufacturers, APL recently completed a set of interface standards to improve the integration of payloads on future small spacecraft. That work was handed over to the U.S. Air Force’s Operational Responsive Space office. Discussions now are under way to develop a similar set of standards for NASA.

Next on the lab’s agenda are two missions for NASA: the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, a mission to study the Vand Allen Belts and the Solar Probe mission.

APL got the go-ahead from NASA in April to start work on the $750 million Solar Probe after many years of deliberation. Scheduled to launch in 2015, the spacecraft will come within 7 million kilometers of the sun, eight times closer than any previous spacecraft. From that point within the corona of the sun, the satellite will study the streams of charged particles that emanate from the sun known as solar wind. In addition to the Solar Probe mission, APL hopes to win a $650 million New Frontiers mission from NASA sometime in 2009.

APL at a Glance


To provide international leadership in the development of innovative, cost-effective, end-to-end space missions that advance the knowledge and use of space in pursuit of
national objectives. Its expertise areas include missile, radar, sonar, undersea and sensor technologies; space science and engineering; information technology; microelectronics; communications; navigation; modeling and simulation; advanced research and technology development; transportation; and biomedical engineering.

Parent Organization:


Top Official:

R.T. Roca

Year Established:




Current Budget:

$780 million (2008 estimate)