Mizzou Engineering graduate student selected for NASA summer program
Dario Cersosimo has always had an interest in space exploration. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the University of Missouri mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate student began his summer vacation with research and weekly phone conferences in preparation for the 21st NASA Planetary Science Summer School held August 3-7 at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JLP) in Pasadena, Calif. It was a summer he says, “couldn’t have been better spent.”
The competitive workshop allows graduate, post-doc and recent Ph.D. students who are looking for careers in planetary exploration to receive first-hand experience in the professional work of NASA employees. Each year a new mission is assigned and a team of engineers, astronomers, planetary geologists and scientists is assembled to develop a concept study and work with the JPL’s Advanced Design Team – known as “Team X” – to assume NASA roles, and prepare a concept study response and presentation.
This year, the challenge involved designing a mission to visit two asteroids – one in the Trojan and one in the centaur family – using the NASA Planetary Science Decadal Survey to determine the main scientific goals. Trojan asteroids share Jupiter’s orbit around the sun, and centaurs are minor planets.
During the one-week intensive lab, the team had do first determine the type of measurements needed and the instrumentation to perform accurate observations and then worked to design the spacecraft with compatible subsystems – prolusion, communications, power, attitude, control systems – to find a suitable trajectory that would ultimately intersect the targets within the mission budget of $650 million.
Cersosimo applied for the program last April and found out in early June that he was one of 17 engineers and scientists from across the U.S. to be selected. The team – with participants from Washington University, Syracuse, University of, University of Colorado, MIT, Georgia Institute of Technology – then began weekly telephone meetings to research and plan their preliminary mission design. Cersosimo focused on the propulsion system and assuring compatibility between the type of engine, fuel tank and amount of fuel necessary to complete the mission, as well as other systems.
“We had to start over many times because when one thing would work well, it would conflict with another system,” Cersosimo said.
Although it was challenging to achieve a congruent system, Cersosimo enjoyed the process with his colleagues.
“It’s really beautiful when scientists take the roles of the engineers and the engineers take on the roles of the scientists. It was a multi-disciplinary effort and everyone had to work together,” Cersosimo said.
“A space mission is very complex, in part because you are under physical and budgetary constraints, but it was very enriching to see how the mission design process works today. What used to take months using a serial process now takes hours because it is more of a parallel process,” said Cersosimo, referring to the difference computational innovations have made.
Cersosimo received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico, and his master’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Fla. At Mizzou, he is working with Professor Craig Kluever on a technique to deflect asteroids to prevent their impact with Earth. He hopes to eventually become a faculty researcher in higher education.