NASA Ames Astrogram – January/February 2024

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Into the Belly of the Rover: VIPER’s Final Science Instrument Installed

by Rachel Hoover

TRIDENT, designed and developed by engineers at Honeybee Robotics in Altadena, California, is the fourth and final science instrument to be installed into VIPER. NASA engineers have already successfully integrated VIPER’s three other science instruments into the rover. These include: the MSOLO (Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations), NIRVSS (Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System), and NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System). 

A team of engineers prepares to integrate TRIDENT – short for The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – into the belly of NASA’s first robotic Moon rover, VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover). 

A team of engineers prepares to integrate TRIDENT – short for The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – into the belly of NASA’s first robotic Moon rover, VIPER – short for the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover.
Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

Shortly after TRIDENT was integrated in the clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the team also successfully tested its ability to power on, release the locks that hold the drill in place during launch, extend to its full depth of more than three feet (one meter), perform percussive drilling, and return to its stowed position inside the rover.

TRIDENT will dig up soil from below the lunar surface using a rotary percussive drill – meaning it both spins to cut into the ground and hammers to fragment hard material for more energy-efficient drilling. In addition to being able to measure the strength and compactedness of the lunar soil, the drill also carries a temperature sensor to take readings below the surface. VIPER will launch to the Moon aboard Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. It will reach its destination at Mons Mouton near the Moon’s South Pole. Scientists will work with these four instruments to better understand the origin of water and other resources on the Moon, which could support human exploration as part of NASA’s Artemis campaign.

NASA Unveils the X-59 Supersonic Aircraft

On January 12, in Palmdale, California, the NASA unveiled the X-59, a quiet supersonic aircraft, to the world. The aircraft is the centerpiece of NASA’s Quesst mission, the agency, and Lockheed Martin. Quesst is NASA’s mission to demonstrate how the X-49 can fly supersonic without generating loud sonic booms and then survey what people hear when it flies overhead. Reaction to the quieter sonic “thumps” will be shared with regulators who will then consider writing new sound-based rules to lift the ban on the faster-than-sound flight over land. .

NASA Quesst’s Mission’s X-59 Supersonic Aircraft.

Members of the Quesst mission team are located at all four NASA field centers, all of which have traditionally been associated with the agency’s historic aeronautical research. The team at Ames has spent many hours working on computational fluid dynamics simulations, wind tunnel testing, systems engineer, and test component manufacturing, helping to shape not just the ingenuity of the aircraft, but the Quesst mission entirely. To learn more about the X-59’s impact on the future of aviation and the tradition of rollout ceremonies at NASA, click here

Nahum Alem Receives Modern Day Technology Leader Award

Nahum Alem received a 2024 Modern-Day Technology Leader Award at the 2024 BEYA STEM DTX Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. This is one of the industry’s most important honors in science, technology, enginering, and math (STEM). Alem was recognized at the Technology Recognition Luncheon featuring Modern-Day Technology Leaders and Science Spectrum Trailblazers on Feb. 16. This year’s theme was, “People, Process, Technology.”

Nahum Alem with the Black Engineer of the Year Modern Day Technology Leaders Award during the BEYA STEM DTX Conference in Baltimore, Maryland on Feb. 16.

The BEYA STEM DTX Conference recognition program is more critical than ever before. One landmark study projects the number of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the United States is set to increase in the coming years. According to the National Science Foundation, underrepresented minorities—Hispanic, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native individuals—made up a higher share of the skilled technical workforce (32%) in 2021 than of workers who were employed in STEM occupations with at least a bachelor’s degree (16%). The conference highlights the importance of not only celebrating the achievements of STEM leaders and professionals but shifting the narrative towards an action-driven strategy to increase the number of minorities with STEM educations and careers. 

Nahum Alem award announcement on the digital sign in front of NASA Ames as one drives into the gate.

According to Tyrone D. Taborn, chairman of the BEYA STEM DTX Conference, “Nahum was selected because he is among an extraordinary group of forward-thinking STEM experts. This year the candidates were the strongest and represented the most diverse collection of executive professionals we have had the pleasure of evaluating. From machine learning to medical breakthroughs, this year’s BEYA STEM awardees stand out as superior authorities in their respective fields.”

For nearly four decades, awards presented at the BEYA STEM Conference have honored excellence in STEM and underscored the serious under-representation of minorities in STEM and at senior levels in all disciplines. For 38 years, employers committed to inclusion have chosen the BEYA STEM Conference to exchange best practices and strategies on how to attract and keep diverse talent in scientific and technical fields. 

The 2024 BEYA STEM DTX Conference hosted multiple award presentation events throughout the conference, where Nahum was recognized in addition to all 2024 award recipients for their significant accomplishments in STEM.

Over the three-day event, the conference provided forums on the retention of diverse talent in STEM, continuous improvement, and networking.

The BEYA STEM Awards is a prestigious recognition platform that celebrates the accomplishments of engineers in the STEM fields. For nearly four decades, BEYA has empowered, mentored, and inspired countless individuals, solidifying its position as a beacon of excellence and innovation.

Cast of Broadway’s ‘The Wiz’ “Ease on Down the Road” Visits NASA Ames

Members of the cast and crew of “The Wiz” pose inside the National Full-Scale Aerodynamic Complex 40 by 80 foot wind tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.
Credit: NASA Ames/Brandon Torres

Members of the cast and crew of Broadway production “The Wiz,” currently on tour at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, visited NASA Ames on Jan. 29 to learn more about the center’s work in air and space.

The group met with center leadership and members of Ames employee advisory groups and toured the Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS), the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC), and observed progress on the Automated Reconfigurable Mission Adaptive Digital Assembly Systems (ARMADAS) robots, which use pre-fabricated modular blocks to build structures autonomously, before following the yellow brick road back “home” to Oz. 

NASA Leader Casey Swails Learns About Wildfire Work at NASA Ames

by Abby Tabor

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Casey Swails views a demonstration on screen in the Airspace Operations Laboratory at NASA Ames. Researchers presented the diverse, long-running efforts in aeronautics at Ames that have helped lay the foundation for agency work related to wildfire response.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Casey Swails

These include a project to help integrate drones into the airspace with Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management, their application to disaster response with the Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations project, and how those informed NASA’s newest effort to make wildfire response more targeted and adaptable, the Advanced Capabilities for Emergency Response Operations project.

Michael Falkowski, program manager for the Applied Sciences Wildland Fire program at NASA Headquarters presented wildfire efforts happening under NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, such as the FireSense project, led out of Ames.

The importance of collaborations within NASA and with partner agencies was also highlighted. Wildfires are complex phenomena and tackling their challenges will require the work of many, for the benefit of all.

NASA Astronomer Sees Power in Community, Works to Build More

by Abby Tabor

Science is often portrayed as a solitary affair, where discoveries are made by lone geniuses toiling in isolation. But Dr. Natasha Batalha, an astronomer at NASA Ames says solving problems with the people around her is one of the best parts of her job.

Dr. Natasha Batalha, an astronomer at NASA Ames says collaborating with her teams is one of the best parts of her job.

 “Oh, man, working with people is all I do!” said Batalha, whose current research involves using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to study exoplanets, planets outside our solar system that orbit other stars.

Batalha’s work explores hot, Jupiter-like exoplanets; smaller, rocky exoplanets more similar to Earth; and brown dwarfs, mysterious objects smaller than a star but huge compared to the biggest planets. A single question has driven her since she was a kid: “Does life exist beyond Earth?”

It’s a lofty question, bigger than any one scientist. And that’s the point.

“I love being part of a larger community,” she said, “We’re working together to try to solve this question that people have been asking for centuries.”

However, the particular joy of belonging wasn’t always present in Batalha’s life.

When she was 10, her family moved from Brazil to the U.S., where she was met with culture shock, pressure to assimilate, and a language barrier. She thinks the latter is partly why she gravitated toward the universal language of math.

Eventually, her interests and strengths took shape around astronomy. When she chose to study physics in college, followed by a dual PhD in astronomy and astrobiology, her parents – who are also scientists – helped fill in for the community she was otherwise lacking.

“In high school, I watched female students drop out of my physics classes,” Batalha said. “The honors physics track in college was devoid of women and people of color. I didn’t feel I had a community in my college classes.”

Her mother, Natalie Batalha, is an astronomer who served as project scientist for NASA’s Kepler space telescope– the mission that taught us there are more planets than stars. Natasha’s father is a LatinX physicist. Both her parents had already faced similar challenges in their careers, and having their example to look at of people who had successfully overcome those barriers helped her push on.  

“I identify as female and LatinX, which are both underrepresented groups in STEM,” she said, “but I also have a ton of privilege because my parents are in the field. That gave me a dual perspective on how powerful community is.”

Dr. Natasha Batalha has been hooked on the search for life beyond Earth since elementary school.
UC Santa Cruz, UC Regents

Since then, empowering her own science community has been a focus of Batalha’s work.

She builds open-source tools, like computer programs for interpreting data, that are available to all. They help scientists use Webb’s exoplanet data to study what climates they may have, the behavior of clouds in their atmospheres, and the chemistry at work there.

“I saw how limiting closed toolsets could be for the community, when only an ‘inner circle’ had access to them,” Batalha said. “So, I wanted to create new tools that would put everyone on the same footing.”

Batalha herself recently used Webb to explore the skies of exoplanet WASP-39 b, a hot gas giant orbiting a star 700 light-years away. She is part of the team that found carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide there, marking the first time either was detected in an exoplanet atmosphere. Now, she is turning to the difficult-to-discern characteristics of smaller, cooler planets.

Batalha says she’s exactly where her 6th-grade self imagined she would be. In elementary school, she read a biography of NASA astronaut Sally Ride and was hooked by an idea it contained: that in 20 years the kids reading those words could be the ones pioneering the search for life on Mars.

Today’s youth belong to the Artemis Generation, who will explore farther than people have ever gone before. The Artemis program will send the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface. Missions over time will build a presence at the Moon to unlock a new era of science and prepare for human missions to Mars and beyond. Along the way, scientists will continue to search for signs of life beyond Earth, an endeavor building on the work of many generations and relying on those in the future to carry on the search. 

“That’s something really rewarding about my work at NASA,” she said. “These questions have been asked throughout human history and, by joining the effort to answer them, you’re taking the baton for a while, before passing it on to someone else.”

Ames Employees Gather for Day of Remembrance Ceremony

by Abby Tabor

On Thursday, Jan. 25, Ames employees gathered for the center’s in-person Day of Remembrance Ceremony in front of N200. Also in attendance were former Center Director Scott Hubbard, and former Deputy Center Director Bill Berry. Every year, we take this important opportunity to honor the memories of those who bravely gave their lives in the pursuit of exploration and discovery and to celebrate their contribution to NASA’s missions. This is a solemn moment to reflect and learn from our history and consider our strong culture of safety as we pursue bold advances in our work here at Ames. 

NASA Ames employees gather at the flagpole in front of N200 to honor the lives lost in human spaceflight and the 17 fallen crew members from Apollo I, the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
Credit: NASA Ames/Don Richey

We honor those lost in test flights, missions, and research throughout our history: the Apollo 1 crew – Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee – who lost their lives at the start of NASA’s pursuit of landing humans on the moon, on January 27, 1967.  We remember the determination of the Challenger crew, who tragically perished 73 seconds into their flight on January 28, 1986 – Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Elison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick, and Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space” who leaves a legacy of STEM education that continues today.  We remember the bravery and inspiration of the crew of Columbia – Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, David Brown, Laurel Clark, and Ames’ own Kalpana Chawla, friend and coworker of many here, who we lost during a failed shuttle reentry on February 1, 2003.  We also honor the others who gave their lives pursuing the missions of N-A-C-A and NASA research in aerospace and space exploration, whose commitment and courage leave a lasting legacy across our agency and nation. 

During the ceremony, Scott Hubbard, who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), spoke about how the accident changed him and what he learned. When sharing a key takeaway from the CAIB report, Hubbard said, “NASA must be a learning agency, and we can’t shy away from our failures or tragedies. We can’t assign them to history so we must learn from them so that [accidents] never occur.” 

As we work to return humans to the moon, and onto Mars, we must reflect on the importance and value of the work we do here at Ames to help ensure the health and safety of those who risk their lives for exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. One example, after the successful return of the Orion capsule from the Artemis 1 test flight a little over a year ago, we discovered that we needed to learn more about the heat shield and its performance during Earth entry from the Moon. Our aero-thermal-dynamics, thermal protection systems, and other experts, along with our arc jet testing team have worked tirelessly to prepare for the first crewed flight of Artemis 2 coming up in 2025.   

Many in our current workforce were not working at the agency when we experienced these unfortunate losses. But we continue to carry the memory of our fallen colleagues and the lessons we’ve learned through our work today. When we look back on the tragedies of the past, we have an opportunity to apply lessons we’ve learned and continue to enforce a safety culture that encourages every voice to be heard and keeps everyone safe. 

Safety is one of NASA’s core values and there’s a reason why it’s listed as NASA’s first core value. We are committed to sustaining a culture that encourages speaking out and sharing concerns. On or off duty, we have a responsibility to keep safety at the center of our work and daily lives – owning and learning from our mistakes and being open to speaking up about concerns with others – to protect our employees, our community, and ourselves. 

Thank you to all those who were able to join us in this moment of reflection. Please take time to look back on NASA’s history, remember our fallen, and consider your health and safety. We cannot do the work that we do without you and your well-being is important us. Know that we have resources available to support you through things that happen at work and beyond. Our community is strong, and let’s continue to care for one another. 

Thank you to those who helped to put our ceremony together, including Lynda Haines, our communications team, and our protective services professionals who keep us safe and secure each and every day. 

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Leader Visits Ames to Discuss Space Science and Spaceflight

by Abby Tabor

Left to right: Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) Management and Integration Department Mr. Nobuhiro Takahashi, Center Director Dr. Eugene Tu, and Vice President and Director General (ISAS) Dr. Hitoshi Kuninaka in the N200 Committee Room following an overview of the history and accomplishments of Ames Research Center.
Credit: NASA Ames/Don Richey

Daniel Andrews, project manager for NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) (left), stands next to a full-scale model of the rover alongside visitors from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA): Dr. Hitoshi Kuninaka, Vice President of JAXA and Director General of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS); Nobuhiro Takahashi of the ISAS Management and Integration Department; and Shintaro Chofuku, a JAXA engineer on detail to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley (right), during a visit to Ames on Feb. 1, 2024. 

Left to Right: Project Manager of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) Dan Andrews, Vice President and Director General, Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Dr. Hitoshi Kuninaka, ISAS Management and Integration Department Nobuhiro Takahashi, and Shintaro Chofuku with the VIPER model in the lobby of N232.
Credit: NASA Ames/Don Richey

Following briefings about both agencies’ space science and spaceflight missions, Kuninaka toured several Ames facilities supporting NASA and JAXA’s exploration of the solar system. The heat shield for JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission, which delivered a sample of an asteroid to Earth in 2020, was tested in the center’s arc jet facility, and a portion of that sample is now being studied by Ames researchers. An upcoming JAXA mission to study the two moons of Mars, called Martian Moons eXploration (MMX), was also tested in the arc jet.

Present and future exploration of the Moon was a focus of the day, including a stop at Ames’ Lunar Imaging Lab following the VIPER briefing.  

Representatives from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) visited Ames on Feb. 1. Here they are seen with the Black Swift S2 UAS in the lobby of N232. Left to right: Vice President and Director General Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) and JAXA Dr. Hitoshi Kuninaka; Associate Director for Science and Strategy of the Science Directorate at NASA Ames Ryan Spackman; and ISAS Management and Integration Department Nobuhiro Takahashi.
Credit: NASA Ames/Don Richey

VIPER will be delivered to Mons Mouton near the Moon’s South Pole in late 2024 to map water and other potential resources and explore the characteristics of the lunar environment where NASA plans to send future astronauts as part of the Artemis campaign.

Last month, JAXA’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) arrived on the lunar surface, after reaching its targeted landing site with great accuracy. The mission aimed to demonstrate accurate lunar landing techniques by a small explorer, to help accelerate study of the Moon and planets using lighter exploration systems.

Japan is a significant partner for NASA and for Ames, specifically,” said Center Director Eugene Tu. “From testing with our teams the X-59 quiet supersonic aircraft design to JAXA’s contributions to Artemis and Gateway, where astronauts on future lunar missions will stay, our work together runs broad and deep. We look forward to many more fruitful collaborations.”

Faces of NASA

Rodney Martin – Deputy Discovery & Systems Health Technical Area Lead at Ames

“[In] everyone’s life, they have a pivotal moment when they ask the question, ‘What am I really doing? What am I here for?’ … I’m reminded of a credo that I came up [with] through the evolution of my engagement of a whole bunch of recreational pursuits [including being a marathoner, ultrarunner, and Ironman triathlete] … as well as my professional pursuits. It’s threefold, and here’s what it is:

“[First,] I’m here because I want to be able to challenge myself, to see how much I can squeeze out of me – whatever that is, whatever ‘me’ is. [For example,] I applied to the astronaut candidate program twice, but I failed to make it to the second round. I figured I’d give a go at throwing my hat in the ring! Like with [an earlier career experience of failing out of] the Navy Nuclear Power Training Program, failure in one domain just means that you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and find a new direction – often pursuing stretch goals that are outside of your comfort zone.

Dr. Rodney Martin, Deputy Discovery and Systems Health Technical Area Lead, NASA’s Ames Research Center
Credit: NASA Ames/Brandon Torres

“[Second,] I want to serve others. I want to find a way to be of use to others, whether it’s in a structured manner or unstructured manner, whether it’s volunteering or just being a civil servant. I really focus on this service aspect; I did become a supervisor about three years ago, and I really take that role seriously. I really have a service-based leadership philosophy. … That’s why I think [mentoring student interns] represented such a [career] highlight for me, because I felt like I was serving their needs. I was helping to really educate them and [provide] knowledge that I want to … transfer to them, to really inspire that next generation of folks.

“… And the third – which I think NASA fits beautifully – is, ‘How do I build the future? How do I help build the future?’

“So again, it’s challenge, service, and building the future. If I don’t do anything else in my entire life except for those three things, I’m at least getting something right. I might be getting everything else entirely wrong, but I can at least work toward those three things.”

Math, Mentorship, Motherhood: Behind the Scenes with NASA Engineers

by Arezu Sarvestani

Engineering is a huge field with endless applications. From aerospace to ergonomics, engineers play an important role in designing, building, and testing technologies all around us.

We asked three engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley to share their experiences, from early challenges they faced in their careers to the day-to-day of being a working engineer.

Give us a look behind the curtain – what is it like being an engineer at NASA?

In her early days at NASA, Diana Acosta visited her aeronautics research and development team during her maternity leave and her daughter got her first introduction to flight simulation technology.

Diana Acosta: I remember working on my first simulations. We were developing new aircraft with higher efficiency that could operate in new places, such as shorter runways. My team was putting together control techniques and introducing new algorithms to help pilots fly these new aircraft in a safer way. We were creating models and testing, then changing things and testing again. 

We had a simulator that worked on my laptop, and we had a lab with a pilot seat and controls. Every week, I made it my goal to finish my modeling or controls work and put that into the lab environment so that I could fly the aircraft. Every Friday afternoon, I would fly the aircraft in simulation and try out the changes I’d made to see if we were going in a good direction. We’d later integrate that into the Vertical Motion Simulator at Ames (which was used to train all the original space shuttle pilots) so that we could do a full motion test with a collection of pilots to get feedback. 

When simulation time came around, it was during my maternity leave and my team had to take the project to simulation without me. It’s hard to get out of the house with a newborn, but sometimes I’d come by with my daughter and bring brownies to the team. I have two daughters now, and they’ve both been in simulators since a young age.

Diana Acosta is Chief of the Aerospace Simulation and Development Branch at NASA’s Ames Research Center. She has worked at NASA for 17 years.

What’s a challenge you’ve overcome to become an engineer?

Savvy Verma (standing) reviews simulation activity with Gus Guerra in the Terminal Tactical Separation Assured Flight Environment at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

Savvy Verma: One of the biggest challenges when I started working was that I was sometimes the only woman in a group of men, and I was also much younger. It was sometimes a challenge to get my voice through, or to be heard. I had mentors who taught me to speak up and say things the way I saw them, and that’s what helped me. A good mentor will back you up and support you when you’re in big meetings or giving presentations. They’ll stand up and corroborate you when you’re right, and that goes a long way toward establishing your credibility. It also helped build my confidence, it made me feel like I was on the right track and not out of line. I had both male and female mentors. The female mentor I had always encouraged me to speak my mind. She said the integrity of the experimental result is more important than trying to change things because someone doesn’t like it or doesn’t want to express it a certain way. 

I have a lot more women coworkers now, things have changed a lot. In my group there are four women and three men. 

Savvy Verma is an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center. She has worked at NASA for 22 years.

Can you become an engineer if you struggle with math in school?

Dorcas Kaweesa

Dorcas Kaweesa: When I introduce myself as an engineer, people always say, “You must be good at math,” and I say, “Oh, I work at it.”

When you want to become an engineer, you must remain adaptable, hardworking, and always willing to learn something new. We’re constantly learning, critically thinking, and problem solving. Most of the time we apply mathematical concepts to the engineering problems we’re solving and not every problem is the same. If you struggle with math, my advice is to maintain the passion for learning, especially learning from your mistakes. It comes down to practicing and challenging yourself to think beyond the immediate struggle. There are so many types of math problems and if you’re not good at one, maybe you’re good at another. Maybe it’s just a hiccup. Also, seek help when you need it, there are instructors and peers out there willing to support you.

Personally, I sought help from my instructors, peers, and mentors, in the math and engineering classes that I found challenging. I also practiced a great deal to improve my problem solving and critical thinking skills. In my current role, I am constantly learning new things based on the task at hand. Learning never ends! If you’re struggling with a math concept, don’t give up. Keep trying, keep accepting the challenge, and keep practicing, you’ll steadily make progress. 

Dorcas Kaweesa is mechanical engineer and structures analyst at NASA’s Ames Research Center. She has worked at NASA for more than two years.

SMA Spotlight: Mission Support Creates Career Satisfaction for Zarchi

Each month, the NASA Safety Center profiles a member of the Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) community, providing insight into their background and highlighting the ways they contribute to the NASA mission. The SMA workforce is made up of a diverse group of professionals who operate across a range of disciplines to assure the safety of NASA personnel and enhance the success of the agency’s portfolio of programs and projects. In January, Kerry Zarchi, division chief, System Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA Ames earned the SMA spotlight recognition.

Zarchi has worked in her SMA role for nearly three years but has been a member of the NASA family for 18 years. Prior to her SMA duties, Zarchi was a computational analyst and supervisor working on heat shields in Ames’ Entry Systems and Technology division.

Zarchi’s supervisory and engineering background has served her well in her SMA role at Ames, which she describes as a “jack-of-all-trades” facility.

Kerry Zarchi, division chief, System Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA Ames earned the SMA spotlight recognition in January.

“I am never bored! Because Ames is small, we kind of do it all,” she said. “We have a lot of ‘do-no-harm’ missions, as well as high-risk missions, and we have a lot of critical facilities here.”

Zarchi’s group supports a varied roster of Ames projects, including Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), Arc Jet Modernization, HelioSwarm, the creation of a procurement Quality Assurance capability, and facilities like wind tunnels and the Vertical Motion Simulator.

In addition to her supervisory duties, Zarchi is enjoying the long-term work of building new leadership roles within her division to give her staff more opportunities.

 “I want to see them go in the different directions they choose,” she said. “Enabling them in their careers is my proudest achievement.”

Throughout her career in multiple roles and levels of responsibility, Zarchi said the best learning experiences she’s had are failures.

“Any time there’s some kind of adversity or challenge, it requires reflection and homework,” she said.

She advises early career employees to embrace those hard situations and not be afraid to ask questions to expand their skills and knowledge.

“The best way to get understanding is by asking questions and speaking up,” she said. “A vital ability that we all need to have, regardless of our role, is the ability to communicate.”

Zarchi believes the SMA community will continue to see funding challenges as well as requirements tailoring support.

“Reliance on funding from projects is a challenge,” she said. “A lot of thought needs to go into making sure we are maintaining our independence, even though we are charging to projects. There’s also a lot of work to be done codifying the tailoring of SMA support to high-risk projects.”

Throughout these challenges, Zarchi encourages her SMA colleagues to understand just how important their roles are to the NASA community.

“I want SMA to know that they’re crucial to NASA’s mission, even if they don’t hear it often or get that feeling,” she said. “It’s vital that this community stays healthy and supportive of each other. I love how everyone I encounter in SMA is so supportive. I admire that and want to embody that as well.”

Zarchi said that the opportunity to have a direct impact on NASA missions is what made her SMA role most appealing.

“What we do is really important, and I appreciate the gravity of the role,” she said. “We touch nearly everything. I want to help spread the word on the importance of SMA and why people should care about it.”

Robot Team Builds High-Performance Digital Structure for NASA

by Gianine Figliozzi

Greater than the sum of its parts: NASA tests the capability of a system that includes simple robots, structural building blocks, and smart algorithms to build functional, high-performance large-scale structures, ultimately enabling autonomous deep-space infrastructure.

Research engineer Christine Gregg inspects a Mobile Metamaterial Internal Co-Integrator (MMIC-I) builder robot. These simple robots are part of a hardware and software system NASA researchers are developing to autonomously build and maintain high-performance large space structures comprised of building blocks. MMIC-I works by climbing though the interior space of building blocks and bolting them to the rest of the structure during a build or unbolting during disassembly.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

If they build it, we will go – for the long-term.

Future long-duration and deep-space exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond will require a way to build large-scale infrastructure, such as solar power stations, communications towers, and habitats for crew. To sustain a long-term presence in deep space, NASA needs the capability to construct and maintain these systems in place, rather than sending large pre-assembled hardware from Earth. 

NASA’s Automated Reconfigurable Mission Adaptive Digital Assembly Systems (ARMADAS) team is developing a hardware and software system to meet that need. The system uses different types of inchworm-like robots that can assemble, repair, and reconfigure structural materials for a variety of large-scale hardware systems in space. The robots can do their jobs in orbit, on the lunar surface, or on other planets – even before humans arrive.

Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley recently performed a laboratory demonstration of the ARMADAS technology and analyzed the system’s performance. During the tests, three robots worked autonomously as a team to build a meters-scale shelter structure – roughly the size of a shed – using hundreds of building blocks.  The team published their results today in Science Robotics.

Research engineer Taiwo Olatunde, left, and intern Megan Ochalek, right, observe as robots move and assemble composite building blocks into a structure. The robots worked on their own to complete the structure in a little over 100 hours of operations. To facilitate the team’s watchful monitoring of the robots’ performance, the demonstration was split over several weeks of regular working hours.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

“The ground assembly experiment demonstrated crucial parts of the system: the scalability and reliability of the robots, and the performance of structures they build. This type of test is key for maturing the technology for space applications,” said Christine Gregg, ARMADAS chief engineer at NASA Ames.  

The high strength, stiffness, and low mass of the structural product is comparable to today’s highest-performance structures, like long bridges, aircraft wings, and space structures – such as the International Space Station’s trusses. Such performance is a giant leap for the field of robotically reconfigurable structures. 

A Scaling Omnidirectional Lattice Locomoting Explorer (SOLL-E) builder robot carries a soccer ball-sized building block called a voxel – short for volumetric pixel – during a demonstration of NASA’s Automated Reconfigurable Mission Adaptive Digital Assembly Systems (ARMADAS) technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The voxels are made of strong and lightweight composite materials formed into a shape called a cuboctahedron.
Credit: NASA Ames/Dominic Hart

A Reliable System Relies on Building Blocks

Building blocks are also key to the robotic system autonomy and reliability. 

“Generally, it’s very hard to develop robust autonomous robots that can operate in unstructured environments, like a typical construction site. We turn that problem on its head by making very simple and reliable robots that operate in an extremely structured lattice environment,” said Gregg.  

For the demonstration, the ARMADAS team provided plans for the structure, but they didn’t micromanage the robots’ work. Software algorithms did the job of planning the robots’ tasks. The system practiced the build sequence in simulation before the actual run started. 

While in operation, two robots – stepping inchworm style – walked on the exterior of the structure, moving one soccer ball-sized voxel at a time. One robot fetched the voxels from a supply station and passed them to the second robot that, in turn, placed each voxel on its target location. 

A third robot followed these placements, climbing though the interior space of the voxels and bolting each new voxel to the rest of the structure. 

Screenshot from a time-lapse showing robots working autonomously as a team, to assemble a meters-scale shelter structure using hundreds of building blocks during a technology demonstration at NASA’s Ames.
Credit: NASA

“Because the robots align each small step to the structure in what is essentially a 3D grid, simple algorithms with low computation and sensing requirements can achieve high-level autonomy goals. The system builds and error-corrects on its own with no machine vision or external means of measurement,” said Gregg. 

Future work will expand the library of voxel types that the robots work with, to include solar panels, electrical connections, shielding, and more. Each new module type will dramatically expand the possible applications because the robots can mix and match them to meet specific needs and locations. The ARMADAS team is also working on new robot capabilities, such as inspection tools, to ensure that autonomously constructed facilities are safe and sound before astronauts arrive. 

ARMADAS’ technology approach increases what we can do with equipment sent for most deep space exploration missions, and how long we can use them. When a mission completes, robots can disassemble space structures, repurpose the building blocks, and construct designs of the future.

This artist’s concept shows the autonomous assembly of critical infrastructure needed for a long-duration human presence on the Moon. Here robots are using modular building blocks to construct structures (left, center) that can protect crew, science facilities, or equipment from space radiation and micrometeoroids. Robots are building a large antenna atop a tower (right) as part of a lunar communications network.NASA

In Memoriam

Senior Research Scientist Dr. Andrzej Pohorille Dies

It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of our friend and colleague Dr. Andrzej (Andrew) Pohorille, on January 6, 2024.  Andrew was a member of the Exobiology Branch at Ames for more than 27 years.

Dr. Andrzej (Andrew) Pohorille

Andrew received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics (with specialty in biophysics) from the University of Warsaw. He did his postdoctoral work with Professor Bernard Pullman at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique in Paris. In 1992, he became a professor of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of California San Francisco, and in 1996 he joined the staff at NASA Ames, where he directed the NASA Center for Computational Astrobiology. In 2000, he received a NASA Group Award for Astrobiology, and in 2002 he was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal. In 2005, he was named Distinguished Lecturer at the Centre for Mathematical Modeling and the National Centre for Space Research in the U.K., and the H. Julian Allen Award at Ames in 2010. Most recently, in December 2023, Andrew was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal for “distinguished service and sustained contributions to NASA’s establishment of Astrobiology as a vibrant, rigorous, and accessible scientific discipline.”

Andrew’s main interests were focused on modeling the origins of life, computer simulations of biomolecular systems, modeling genetic and metabolic networks, and statistical mechanics of condensed phases. He also worked on the development of novel computational methods for parallel and distributed computing. Andrew had worked on developing concepts and designing instruments for microbiology experiments on small satellites and in the lunar environment, and on new ways to organize scientific information.

In recent years, Andrew has served as a co-lead on two large projects: Evolutionary processes that drove the emergence and early distribution of life (EPDEL) and Center for Life Detection Research and Service (CLD/RS). In the latter, his main accomplishment was to lead the design, deployment, and upgrades of the Life Detection Knowledge Base.  Andrew coauthored more than 120 peer-reviewed publications.

The nomination for Andrew’s Exceptional Service Medal included the statement, “Through his wide-ranging technical contributions, tireless community organizing, and one-on-one mentorship of many, he exemplifies the meaning of “exceptional service”. 

Andrew will be truly missed by all of us.

Statistical Summary of Activities of the Protective Service Division’s Security/Law Enforcement and Fire Protection Services Units for Period Ending December 2023


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