APL workers install the thruster bracket assembly for a next-generation electric propulsion system that will be tested on the Double Asteroid Redirect Mission, scheduled to launch in late summer 2021. Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman.

For many, 2020 was a throwaway year that couldn’t end soon enough but at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) work not only went on but paid fantastic dividends.

APL’s researchers in Laurel achieved significant milestones while working through the pandemic and garnered weighty recognition.

In November, the NASA Astrobiology program announced the selection of Kevin Stevenson, an APL astrophysicist, to lead one of eight multi-institutional teams in its new Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR) program.

“This is a huge win for the exoplanets research group at APL,” Stevenson said. “This gives us a seat at the table when it comes to discussing the search for life on other worlds, granting us instant credibility in astrophysics and building on our successful astrobiology work.”

Stevenson will be project manager for at least the next three to five years, leading researchers from various fields at 16 institutions across the globe in characterizing nearby M-dwarf habitable zone planets. They will focus on how current and future telescopes can best search for the chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of planets orbiting red dwarf stars.

“[This] is a result of a dedicated effort to build world-recognized expertise in exoplanets research,” said Dana Hurley, an APL planetary scientist who helps direct exoplanet and astrobiology work at the Laboratory.


Also in November, the APL team working on NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft installed a new piece of technology on the craft that will be demonstrated during the mission that launches in summer 2021.

NEXT-C, a new solar-powered ion propulsion system, is designed for improved performance and fuel efficiency compared to its predecessors. Although not the primary propulsion system on DART, it will allow for in-flight testing and demonstrate its potential for use in future deep space missions.

APL’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) continues to operate flawlessly after two years, gathering data about the sun and solar wind.

On June 9, PSP set the record speed for a manmade object, reaching 244,230 miles per hour. Its Sept. 27 flyby took it to within 8.4 million miles from the solar surface, with the next close pass slated for Jan. 17.

Dragonfly, an eight-bladed rotorcraft rover designed to explore the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, is in production at the laboratory but its launch has been delayed from 2026 to an alternate date in 2027.

According to an APL release, the delay is due to factors external to the Dragonfly project team, including COVID-19’s impact on NASA’s Planetary Science Division budget.

“Dragonfly will significantly increase our understanding of this richly organic world and help answer key astrobiology questions in our search to understand the processes that supported the development of life on Earth,” said Lori Glaze, director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.


In October, APL announced significant progress in research to help the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) improve security-screening technology at airports, tailoring an internally developed software package to simulate the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners used in airports and create a Virtual AIT model.

“The Virtual AIT is helping us transform what travel will look like in the future,” said Chris Thompson, who manages APL’s Transportation Security Systems program in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector.

The ultimate aim of the technology is to achieve an airport security zone where travelers carrying small bags can walk through a screening area without stopping, without lines, traditional scanning equipment or pat downs.

Other ongoing security research includes the suitability of commercially available, lighter-weight armor for diplomat vehicles in dangerous parts of the world.

“There are only a handful of vehicles that can bear the weight of [contemporary] armor,” said Adam Maisano, a materials scientist at APL. “It makes them instantly recognizable.”

Additional research focuses on ceramic armor compounds and testing the blast resistance of windows for vehicles and buildings.


As important as APL’s work is for exploration and national security, it also provides a tremendous economic impact to the region and employs approximately 7,200, making it Howard County’s largest single employer.

According to Amanda Zrebiec, an APL spokesperson, the full impact of APL’s partnerships with outside contractors and the number of jobs it supports is not currently known but APL technology transfer activity between 2014 and 2018 resulted in the formation of 15 startup companies.

In terms of the money and opportunity APL brings to the area, a 2019 Economic Impact Report produced by Appleseed, a New York-based consulting firm, notes that APL’s contract revenues exceeded $1.5 billion in fiscal 2018.

According to that report, 98 percent of APL’s research and related spending is funded by federal grants and contracts, with 69.1 percent ($1.03 billion) coming from the Department of Defense and 17.3 percent ($257.9 million) coming from NASA.

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | January 2020 Issue