A thesis scholarship for space exploration

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Cecily Sunday, a doctoral student at the Department of Electronics, Optronics and Signal Processing (DEOS), has been awarded an Amelia Earhart Fellowship from Zonta International for the quality of her research work on the surface mechanics of asteroids.

This US$10,000 Fellowship is awarded annually to 35 young women around the world pursuing higher studies or research in the aeronautics and space field.

Cecily’s work is motivated by the idea of being able to drive along the surface of Phobos and take samples of the Mars satellite. She studies the wheel-regolith interactions of a rover on the Martian moon, whose diameter is approximately 22 km and where the surface gravity is about 1,700 times weaker than the Earth’s. Regolith is a layer of loose deposits covering the bedrock. The granular surface and weak gravity on Phobos create a fundamental mobility problem – how can a wheel system gain traction on such a surface?

The purpose of her thesis is to assess the performances of wheeled mobile systems on surfaces covered with regolith, as found on asteroids and small moons. Her thesis at ISAE-SUPAERO is being supervised by Naomi Murdoch of DEOS and by Patrick Michel of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (Côte d’Azur Observatory) in Nice.

MMX - Martian Moons Exploration

Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, Cecily holds a Master’s in Aeronautics and Space Systems Engineering from ISAE-SUPAERO. She worked in the United States as a mechanical robotics engineer at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), NASA’s space research center in California. After a little more than 4 years dedicated to developing and testing sampling instruments and systems for planetary missions, such as the InSight lander, the M2020 rover and the Europa lander concept, she decided to pursue a career as a researcher.
She came back to ISAE-SUPAERO in Toulouse in October 2018 to undertake her doctoral work.

See her interview for the "They make ISAE-SUPAERO" exhibition.

What were your motivations for doing research in the field of planetology? And why did you choose France and ISAE-SUPAERO to do so?

During my master’s program at ISAE-Supaéro, I helped design a drop-tower experiment that permits us to study regolith behavior in reduced-gravity environments, here on Earth. The subject of asteroid
surface mechanics fascinated me, because the conditions found on asteroids are unintuitive and difficult to replicate under Earth’s gravity. Then, while working as an engineer at JPL, I came to appreciate just how hard it is to design systems that operate on planets and moons covered by loose material. I decided to pursue a PhD in planetary science so that I could better understand these environments, in hopes of optimizing scientific return from future planetary missions. When I learned that there was a thesis position available at ISAE-Supaéro under the supervision of Dr. Naomi Murdoch, a known researcher in the field, I applied.

Could you give a short presentation of your thesis subject?

The objective of my thesis is to assess the performance of wheeled mobility systems on low-gravity,
regolith-covered surfaces, such as asteroids and small moons. Historically, wheeled-rovers have been
used to explore the moon and Mars, while “hopping” rovers have been deployed to asteroids. In the
coming years, the French Space Agency (CNES) plans to send a wheeled-rover to the surface of Phobos, a moon of Mars, as part of the Japanese Space Agency’s Martian Moons eXploration mission (MMX). Despite knowledge gained from recent missions to asteroids like Bennu and Ryugu, further research is required to help with the development of rover-systems for low-gravity environments. During my thesis,I will simulate the granular flow around the wheels of a rover using the Discrete Element Method and an open-source code called Chrono. The simulation results will help with the operation and analysis of the MMX rover.

Under what conditions do you perform your simulations and what is your work environment?

I spend the majority of my time working on my computer. From my desk, I can research existing work in the field, develop code, run simulations, and analyze the simulation results. Occasionally, I run simple tests in the laboratory to confirm that my simulations are correct. Fortunately, my thesis allows me to collaborate with engineers and researchers from several different universities and institutions, including the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, the French Space Agency (CNES), The German Aerospace Center (DLR), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the California Institute of Technology.

How did you obtain this Fellowship, which is awarded to just 35 winners around the world?

Zonta International is a foundation that supports women and equality. Every year, the foundation
provides numerous scholarships to young women in business, technology, and public affairs. I learned about Zonta International from several friends and colleagues and decided to apply for the Amelia Earhart Fellowship. This fellowship is offered to women who are pursuing PhD studies in either aerospace engineering or space sciences. Qualifying individuals are invited to submit their application online in November, and are notified in April if they have been selected for the award.

What are you going to do with the grant? And what are your goals for the future?

I’d like to use this scholarship to visit our project collaborators in the US, France, and Germany. After my thesis, I would like to continue following the MMX mission and assist in the development of scientific instruments for future small-body missions. There is still much to be learned in this field, and and I’m hoping to contribute by applying the skills that I gain during my thesis.

Cecily Sunday’s work and simulations will help engineers to develop the rover’s operations and scientists to generate laws on low-gravity granules. With her profile as an engineer and scientific researcher and the collaborative work she has developed internationally, she has all it takes to meet this challenge and receiving this Fellowship is no doubt just the first in a long series of successes.

She will receive her award at an international ceremony whose date has not yet been set by Zonta International. In the meantime, take a look at Cecily’s portrait produced for the “elles font l’ISAE-SUPAERO” (They’re ISAE-SUPAERO) campaign currently showing on Campus. She and other women at the Institute talk about their convictions and their feelings about the place of women in the sciences and in society in general.

Deployment of the MMX rover on Phobos

A bit of history: Amelia Earhart

A famous American aviator and member of Zonta International, Amelia was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and set her long-range flight record between Hawaii and California on January 11th, 1935. She disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight around the world. In 1938, the authorities at Zonta International created an award in her memory to support young female students pursuing a high-level scientific university program in the Aeronautics and Space field. An aviation pioneer, Amelia Earhart was the first woman to cross the Atlantic on her own. She died during the last leg of her attempt at circumnavigating the globe. She was a member of the Zonta Club in Boston and later in New York.
In her memory, thirty-five US$10,000 fellowships are awarded each year to young women pursuing high-level studies or research in the aerospace field.

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