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NASA team member Woollands joins CSL faculty


Robyn Woollands, Lizzie Roehrs

  1. Where is your PhD from? What did you study there? 

I actually started my career with an undergrad in physics, followed by a masters in astronomy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. I then moved to the US to complete my second master’s in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota. After finishing that, I moved to Texas A&M where I studied for my PhD in aerospace engineering with Professor John Junkins. For my PhD I focused on astrodynamics, in particular high-fidelity orbit propagation with application to space situational awareness.

  1. What got you interested in Aerospace Engineering? Robyn Woollands

I first became interested in space at age 7 when our elementary school class studied the solar system and space exploration. It wasn’t until a few months later, when my parents took me to an open night at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, and I saw Saturn through a telescope for the first time, that I knew in my heart that space would be a part of my life forever! At that time, I dreamt of one day working for NASA and I followed all the NASA missions with great excitement! I knew chances were slim and it would be many years of hard work to even get close to making that dream a reality. After graduating with my PhD in Aerospace Engineering I tried my luck, applied to and I received a job offer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was a dream come true!

  1. Tell me about your work in NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. 

I worked as a Mission Design Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for almost four years. At JPL, I was a member of the navigation team for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and for the return phase of JAXA’s Hayabusa2 mission. MRO is one of the longest serving science and communication satellites orbiting Mars. It has transmitted over 50 TB of data back to Earth and has provided reconnaissance support for numerous missions including the landings of InSight in 2018 and now Mars2020. The latter will be delivering the Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter to the surface of Mars in February 2021. My role on the MRO Nav Team was to perform daily orbit determination, using data from the Deep Space Network (DSN), to determine the position and velocity of MRO in its orbit around Mars. On January 20, MRO performed its final orbit trim maneuver (OTM) to ensure that it will be in position to relay information from the Mars2020 Lander during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) on February 18, 2021.

Hayabusa2 is JAXA’s asteroid sample return mission that returned a sample of the asteroid, Ryugu, to Earth on December 6, 2020. During the months leading up to the capsule landing, Hayabusa2 made a series of trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM) to ensure that the capsule would be release from the spacecraft, with the correct heading and velocity, to reach the target landing site in Australia. As part of the JPL Nav Team, I did daily orbit determination and maneuver reconstruction to confirm that the spacecraft was on track to deliver material back to Earth that has seen little change since the formation of our Solar System. 

In addition to supporting active missions, I worked on various research and technology development projects at JPL. These include developing low-thrust trajectory design tools for JPL and working on potential Mars CubeSat mission concepts that could enable large scale studies of dust devils on Mars.

  1. What are you most looking forward to about working at Illinois? 

After completing my PhD, I was extremely happy to learn that I had been offered a faculty position at UIUC, in addition the job offer I had from NASA. It was a very tough decision to make but I decided to accept the job at NASA because it had been my dream since childhood to work on NASA missions. I loved every minute of my time at NASA, but I also really enjoy working with students and so UIUC was always in the back of my mind. When I heard that the UIUC Aerospace Department had a faculty opening in Space Systems I could not pass up the chance to apply again! I consider myself incredibly lucky to now be a part of one of the top aerospace programs in the nation, and I look forward to collaborating with the excellent faculty and students to solve challenging and important research problems in my field.

  • What research are you looking forward to starting/continuing here?

At the UIUC Aerospace Department, my research group aims to make space exploration more sustainable by supporting future space asset refueling and servicing missions. My research group is also working on highly accurate and efficient methods for orbit propagation. I am also looking forward to continuing my collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on research related to the exploration of Mars.