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An interview with Cecily Sunday a PhD student at ISAE-SUPAERO working on regolith dynamics

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Can you tell us about where you are coming from and what is your academic background before the PhD ?

I grew up on the east coast of the United States and received a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then, I moved to Toulouse to study Space Systems at ISAE-SUPAERO. After receiving my master’s degree, I worked for several years as an engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and then returned to France to start my thesis.

Why did you decide to enter a PhD program and why ISAE-SUPAERO ?

During my previous studies at ISAE-SUPAERO, I worked on an experiment that permits us to study regolith behavior in low-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 on Earth. Then, while working as an engineer, 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 so that I could better understand these environments, in hopes of optimizing scientific return from future planetary missions. As ISAE-SUPAERO performs reputable research in precisely this area, I applied for a PhD in Toulouse.

Can you briefly explain the topic of your thesis ?

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 Explorer (MMX) mission. 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. The simulation results will help with the operation and analysis of the MMX rover.

How about life in Toulouse ?

Toulouse is a young and active city. I enjoy living here because I can always find interesting activities to do on the weekends, like attending seasonal festivals, concerts, and shows. It is easy to move around by foot or public transportation, and even possible to visit the Pyrenees mountains or the sea for a day.

The best/worst moment in your thesis ?

So far, the aspect of my thesis that I enjoy the most is collaborating with other universities and companies. Recently, I was able to spend two months at the California Institute of Technology, and really benefited from interacting with the group that hosted me.

What do you plan to do after your PhD thesis ?

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.

Photo illustration thèse Cecily Sunday

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