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Probing Jupiter from Afar

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Long-Term Project: Karl Ammerman, a 1996 computer engineering alumnus, stands with his family in front of the Juno space probe early in 2011, before it left Lockheed Martin's Denver facility for mission launch in Florida-five years away from Jupiter.

Nearly 50 years after a Rose-Hulman graduate helped America's space program put a man on the moon, present-day alumnus Karl Ammerman is helping to expand our knowledge of the solar system through NASA's Juno space probe that's providing scientists a close-up view of Jupiter.

As a software engineer with Lockheed Martin Space System Company's space exploration systems division, Ammerman developed and implemented interface flight software that's critical as the probe begins uncovering mysteries involving the composition of Jupiter and its moons. Juno entered the planet's orbit on July 4 and soon began transmitting high-resolution images. Data from scientific experiments will continue throughout 37 orbits over the course of the next 20 months.

This information will allow scientists to learn more about Jupiter's composition and its origin. If Juno finds that the planet doesn't have a solid core (like Earth), this would lend credence to the condensed-cloud theory that Jupiter gradually formed from gases found during the solar system's origin. This knowledge could take further steps toward unlocking information about the origins of the solar system, as well as Earth.

Ammerman, a 1996 computer engineering alumnus, spent 19 months (through October, 2010) as one of fewer than a handful of engineers writing software for two of Juno's scientific payloads: The Advanced Stellar Compass, which will measure Jupiter's gigantic magnetic field and create a detailed 3-D map, and the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper, which will provide high resolution images of the planet's atmosphere and polar aurora.

"I'm very interested in seeing what is discovered about Jupiter's polar aurora, and will be keeping an eye out to see the complex 3-D magnetic field map of Jupiter that one of the payloads helps to plot," says Ammerman. "When I first started work on Juno, I had many 'awestruck' moments when I had a hard time wrapping my head around the magnitude of the overall mission, specifically because of the ultimate distance the spacecraft would be traveling away from Earth."

The Lockheed Martin engineer remarks, "What blows my mind is how the scientists and engineers responsible to guide Juno from launch to orbit insertion were able to achieve the nearly 1.85-billion mile journey within one second of the original predicted time. I'm extremely satisfied to have been able to play a small part in Juno's development, and am very thankful that the five-year journey to Jupiter went off flawlessly, and now the software I wrote can start performing its role in the scientific mission."

Ammerman has been with Lockheed Martin since 2003. Abe Silverstein, a 1929 Rose-Hulman alumnus, played a leading role in developing NASA, launching its first manned space flight missions, and giving President John F. Kennedy the timetable for putting an American on the moon.