The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has built pioneering missions to the frontiers of space since its inception in the 1940s. From the early sounding rocket days to the discovery of the radiation belts, from the launching of some of the nation's first spacecraft to the first landing on an asteroid, APL has made extensive contributions to our nation's space program.
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Our Story

Since the dawn of the space age, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has been at the center of innovative space exploration science and engineering. From placing cameras on rockets to capture the first pictures of Earth from space, to crafting the first low-cost mission to the outer planets, APL has been the nation's foremost pioneer for delivering innovative, low-cost planetary science.

Leveraging expertise developed while creating the world's first satellite-based navigation system called Transit for the U.S. Navy in the 1970s and 1980s, APL led efforts in the 1990s to shape NASA's Discovery and New Frontiers programs to complement larger, more expensive "flagship" exploration missions.

In February 1996, APL's NASA-funded Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft became the first mission to launch as part of the Discovery Program. And in January 2006, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which was designed, built, and operated by APL, launched toward Pluto as the first mission of the medium-class New Frontiers Program.

In the past two decades, APL has led some of NASA's most innovative and challenging missions, including MESSENGER, which has "rewritten the book" on Mercury; the Van Allen Probes, which currently provide valuable information regarding Earth's radiation belts and space weather; the twin STEREO spacecraft, which provided the first-ever 360-degree view of our Sun; the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which since July 2015 has been returning the first scientific information from the most distant objects explored in our solar system. In 2019, New Horizons flew by a distant Kuiper Belt object more than 4 billion miles from Earth.

In all, APL has designed and built 70 spacecraft and nearly 300 specialized instruments that have visited every planet in our solar system and collected information critical to expanding humankind's understanding of the universe.

A university affiliated research center, APL complements the capabilities of larger NASA centers with our proven capability to lead a mission from design and build through operations and data delivery. By leveraging expertise and advanced technologies developed through our national security research and development programs, APL provides the nation with a significant return on its investment in applied science and technology.

APL's competence, commitment, and dedication to discovery, engineering, sensor technology, and information systems have been proven over many years to deliver outstanding science on time and within budget.

Design, Build, and Operate Model

APL is one of the few not-for-profit organizations in the nation with the experience, knowledge, and capability to design, build, and operate spacecraft, support mission operations, and return valuable scientific data to Earth from the farthest reaches of our solar system. To do so, we also leverage our expertise in advanced sensors, communications, microelectronics, and autonomous systems and apply it in innovative ways to lower the cost of delivering high-quality science.

How to Contact Us

APL Main Switchboard
JHU Applied Physics Laboratory
11100 Johns Hopkins Road
Laurel, MD 20723-6099
Phone (Washington, D.C.): 240-228-5000
Phone (Baltimore): 443-778-5000

Civil Space Mission Area

Jason Kalirai/Steven Arnold

Civil Space Program Development

Cheryl Reed

Programs Office

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Environmental Testing Facility

Hadi Navid

Education & Public
Outreach Office

Kerri Beisser/Linda Butler

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Facilities & Resources

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Firsts and Facts

  • First photo of Earth from space (atop a V-2 rocket)
  • First color photo of Earth (DODGE mission)
  • First satellite navigation system (Transit)
  • First landing on an asteroid (NEAR)
  • Only non-NASA center to lead a U.S. planetary mission (NEAR to asteroid Eros, MESSENGER to Mercury, and New Horizons to Pluto)
  • First mission to orbit the Sun at close approach. (Parker Solar Probe)

Frequently Asked Questions

What Kind of Work Does APL Civil Space Mission Area Do?

We provide the following essential capabilities to our various customers and sponsors:

  • Space Missions: APL develops end-to-end, challenging science and exploration missions such as the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, and Parker Solar Probe. APL has developed, built, and operated more than 70 spacecraft.
  • Science Research and Definition: With nearly 200 space scientists, APL conducts fundamental research in many fields. We are also involved in the definition of many of the key space science, planetary, Earth science, space weather, and solar physics missions.
  • Systems Engineering: APL's complete mission design and implementation expertise, combined with the facilities and experience to integrate complex and challenging systems, are often used to support overall systems engineering and integration of key government programs.
  • Instruments: APL has developed nearly 300 instruments that have flown on different space missions. Examples include CRISM, a hyperspectral imager, operating on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, LORRI, a high spatial resolution camera aboard New Horizons and the Lucy mission; and the Gamma Ray Neutron Spectrometer aboard Psyche and MMX.
  • Technology Transfer: Cooperatively, with both the Civil Space and National Security Space customers, APL develops technology applications to solve critical challenges, including technology development, risk reduction, demonstration, and exchanges. Our academic nonprofit status is not conductive to nature of industrial work, so mature technologies are offered to industry for full-scale production.
  • Trusted Agent and Independent Analysis, Review and Oversight: APL, as a non-profit laboratory and trusted advisor, is often asked to provide an unbiased analysis of alternatives, support government reviews and panels, and advise science community boards and committees.

Does APL Work With Industry or Do Everything In House?

Although APL has the end-to-end capability to develop challenging missions on behalf of NASA, we partner and team with industry, other government facilities such as NASA centers, and academic institutions to ensure that we bring the best talent or solutions to the problem at hand.

Isn't APL a Navy Laboratory?

Originally, APL was designated as a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) for the Department of Defense. However, today APL serves a wide range of U.S. government departments and agencies, including the Departments of Treasury and Homeland Security, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Security Agency (NSA), and all of the armed services.

Is APL a NASA Center?

APL is not a NASA center. However, we are considered a NASA research center that uses and preserves NASA's essential capabilities. A contract with APL was issued in September 2006 similar to the contract NASA has with the California Institute of Technology for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). APL is one of three institutions that NASA uses to develop and operate full science missions — the other two being the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

How Many Missions Are You Operating for NASA?

We are currently operating five missions at our various mission operations centers. These include the New Horizons spacecraft which sailed by Pluto in 2015, the twin STEREO spacecraft studying the Sun, the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes, and the TIMED spacecraft studying the Earth's atmosphere. Other spacecraft built by APL, such as the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), are still operating but are operated by the Goddard Space Flight Center.


To see available opportunities, visit the The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Employment Page.

Learn more about the NASA/APL Internship Program.

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