Cornell partners with JPL

"Metamorphosis" sculpture at JPL

“Metamorphosis” sculpture at JPL

Tuesday, October 28, 2014, La Canada Flintridge, Calif.–More than 70 Cornell alumni visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in late October for a tour of the leading U.S. center for robotic space exploration. Organized by the Cornell Office of Alumni Affairs, the event highlighted JPL’s ongoing space science achievements, which Cornell researchers have been deeply involved in. Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Mason Peck emceed the evening program and provided an update on the school’s last decade of spacecraft engineering projects.

"Out-of-This-World Records! Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon."

“Out-of-This-World Records! Driving Distances on Mars and the Moon.” Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After a reception, Cornell guests gathered to hear opening remarks by JPL Director Charles Elachi. The lab director cited the year’s milestones in space exploration.

In January, for example, the Mars Opportunity rover team celebrated the hardy robotic explorer’s 10th year on the Martian surface. In July, Opportunity set an off-Earth driving record, when it logged its 25th mile, surpassing the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 moon rover’s mileage record set in 1973. Steven Squyres, Cornell’s James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences and Opportunity’s scientific principal investigator, noted that Opportunity’s achievements were one component of a “second golden age” of solar system exploration.

In March, JPL’s Cassini spacecraft marked a significant milestone of its own: its 100th flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan. The mission has mapped Titan’s methane lakes and seas. Cornell astronomer Jonathan Lunine (David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences), one of the Cassini interdisciplinary scientists, studies Titan’s exotic chemistry to see whether life could have evolved on the frozen but Earth-like body.

During the Cornell alumni event, Elachi also outlined JPL’s recently formalized strategic research partnership with Cornell. Last November, the university became an official member of JPL’s Strategic University Research Partnership (SURP) program, when Cornell President David Skorton and Director Elachi signed a memorandum of understanding. SURP provides an avenue for university researchers to collaborate with JPL staff on basic and applied research in 14 science and technology areas. The program aims to enhance the strategic science and technology goals of both JPL and the universities with which it partners.

Through SURP, both undergraduate and graduate students at partner universities can pursue summer internships. JPL also funds graduate research in its core areas. This level of direct student engagement and support provides the NASA center with access to cutting-edge research and helps JPL nurture potential future employees, many of them Cornell engineering alumni.

Peck pointed out that Cornell engineering students are well prepared for the advanced technology and mission design work at JPL. He traced the growing emphasis on advanced space technology at Cornell in recent years. In just the last decade, faculty and students have collaborated on innovative spacecraft designs, novel propulsion systems and sophisticated GPS tracking analyses. Student teams have designed and built small satellites that have won launch slots. The smallest–the crowd-funded femtosatellite mission known as KickSat–flew aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Peck also described a liquid water propulsion system and a moon mission, two projects currently under development by Cornell engineering students.


Aaron Stehura

Aaron Stehura

Laura Jones

Laura Jones

Mike Meacham

Mike Meacham

Peck then moderated a panel of Cornell alumni who currently work at JPL, including Laura Jones  (Ph.D. ’12), Aaron Stehura (B.S. ’09, M.Eng. ’10), and  Mike Meacham (B.S. ’04, M.Eng. ’05). The three engineering grads discussed how their classes, research and student team projects at Cornell have contributed to their success at JPL. Aaron’s work on Cornell’s Violet nanosatellite–a 50 kg spacecraft that will demonstrate high-speed maneuvers–provided him a background in systems thinking that has proven useful at JPL.  Jones credited the hands-on engineering lab experiences and the close connection to the space sciences. While a Ph.D student at Cornell, Jones tested her research on NASA’s microgravity aircraft. She worked on space technology projects involving formation flight and has since applied her research to solving spacecraft engineering problems.

Peck, whose Space Systems Design Studio will be collaborating with Jones as principal investigator through a SURP grant, concluded that “it’s an exciting time to collaborate with JPL. Cornell emphasizes world-changing research, and Engineering’s advanced technology research has the potential to do just that in support of NASA’s future missions.”