HANCOCK COUNTY — NASA launched the Pluto-bound New Horizons space probe in 2006, long before Pluto faced its high-profile demotion to dwarf planet status.
It was also long before the co-owner of a tech company with Hancock County ties thought he would be involved with creating a computer application to help NASA scientists organize and evaluate a variety of studies conducted during the space agency’s close look at Pluto.
“I could not even imagine 10 years ago ever being involved with something like this,” said Calvin Hendryx-Parker, a New Palestine native and co-owner and chief technology officer at Six Feet Up Inc., a computer technology company that develops, hosts and supports Web projects.
The programming effort, completed last fall, was in preparation for the space probe’s flyby of Pluto in July.
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The program, called a portal, was set up to work with New Horizons’ Ralph sensor, one of two telescopes on the space probe, Hendryx-Parker said.
The company, which he co-owns with his wife, Gabrielle, designed the portal so NASA scientists could log in from various sites, work collaboratively on planning certain tasks they wanted the sensor to do and program those tasks, as well as collect the data afterward for study.
“The visualizations using the graphs were very popular with the scientists,” he said.
While the Ralph sensor helped capture clear and detailed pictures of the planet, the portal was concerned with infrared spectral mapping to determine the composition of the dwarf planet’s surface, said Eddie Weigle, CEO at Big Head Endian, the NASA subcontractor that hired Six Feet Up to build the portal.
The maps are used by scientists to determine what Pluto’s surface is made out of and other aspects of its geology, as well as what’s in the atmosphere, Weigle said.
Hendryx-Parker said the data from Ralph is being sent back to Earth at a speed of 1 kilobyte per second, a rate he jokingly described as “way slower than dial-up.” Only about 10 to 15 percent of the data has come in so far, he said.
He said it will take about 18 more months for all of Ralph’s Pluto data to arrive. Hendryx-Parker said the portal will be active during that period and probably longer.
“We don’t know of any plans to decommission the portal; and from looking at the data and activities that are in there right now, there are still a few more major operations that the probe will do and then report back on,” he said.
Hendryx-Parker recently received an Innovation Connectivity & Excellence (ICE) award for the project at ConnectTech, an event organized by Rainmakers, an Indianapolis-based business development organization that serves hundreds of members through networking events, discussions, community service projects and custom business develop-ment assignments.
Tina Imperial, Rainmakers spokeswoman, said five people were nominated for the group’s latest monthly award, and Hendryx-Parker was selected by the board because of the portal project and the national recognition it received.
Hendryx-Parker said Six Feet Up was chosen for the portal project in the first place because of its reputation in the tech industry.
That was a sentiment Weigle echoed, explaining that when he was looking for a company to complete the task, Six Feet Up appeared as a good candidate.
“We had a pretty good impression of them,” Weigle said.
Six Feet Up was started in San Francisco in 1999, moved to Mt. Comfort in 2003, Fortville in 2005 and Fishers in 2014, where it’s located now.
The Hendryx-Parkers, formerly Fortville residents, now live in Fishers.
Hendryx-Parker said that with the response to the portal he envisions the company doing more work for the space agency.
Weigle said that could happen.
“Yes, if the right oppor-tunity arises, I certainly would use them again,” he said.
Mass: 22.7 pounds
Average power: 6.3 watts
Purpose: Study surface geology and morphology; obtain surface composition and surface temperature maps
Ralph is the “eyes” of the New Horizons space probe and is charged with making maps that show what Pluto, its moons, and other Kuiper Belt Objects look like. (The instrument is so named because it’s coupled with an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice in the New Horizons remote-sensing package – a reference familiar to fans of “The Honeymooners” TV show.)
Ralph’s suite of eight detectors — seven charge-coupled devices (CCDs) similar to those found in a digital camera and a single infrared array detector — are fed by a single, sensitive magnifying telescope with a resolution more than 10 times better than the human eye can see. The entire package operates on less than half the wattage of a night light.
Ralph takes images twice daily as New Horizons approaches, flies past and then looks back at the Pluto system. Ultimately, it will map land forms in black-and-white and color, take stereo images to determine surface topography, and help scientists refine the radii and orbits of Pluto and its moons. It will aid the search for clouds and hazes in Pluto’s atmosphere and for rings and additional satellites around Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects.