New UA Grad to 'Pilot' OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft
Daniel Wibben, who spent his undergraduate and graduate years as a member of the team planning the OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission, was hired by an Arizona-based space navigation company to help steer the spacecraft to the asteroid Bennu and back.

By Daniel Stolte, University Relations - Communications
Aug. 18, 2015


An artist's impression of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaching its target asteroid, Bennu, in 2018.
An artist's impression of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaching its target asteroid, Bennu, in 2018. (Image: NASA)

Although it's unmanned, OSIRIS-REx, NASA's spacecraft scheduled to bring back a sample from an asteroid, is not without a pilot.

In fact, it takes nearly a dozen people — all highly skilled and experienced in deep space navigation — to steer the probe to its target, retrieve a sample and ensure its safe return to Earth. One of these people is Daniel Wibben, who graduated from the UA in June with a Ph.D. in systems engineering.

Wibben had not yet defended his dissertation when he was offered a job with KinetX Aerospace, a company specializing in deep space navigation based in Tempe, Arizona.

Fascinated by all things related to space, Wibben said he always has been intrigued by "the unknown and the ability to go out there and learn something that no one has seen or learned before."

"I wanted to work in space (exploration)," he said, "and when you're in the U.S. and want to work in deep space, you want to work with NASA. I'm not aware of any other university where you have the opportunity to work in the heart of a space mission as a student, so once I found out the UA offered that opportunity, I wanted to grasp it." 

As an undergraduate student, Wibben volunteered in the Space Systems Engineering Laboratory, or SSEL, led by Roberto Furfaro, an assistant professor of systems engineering in the UA College of Engineering. SSEL was founded in 2010 to provide engineering and science support to the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in present and future robotic missions for solar systems exploration. Currently, SSEL provides students and faculty to work on the OSIRIS-REx mission.

Upon completion of his master's degree in systems engineering, during his doctoral studies, Wibben was part of both SSEL and the Science Processing and Operations Center, or SPOC. At SPOC, the OSIRIS-REx science and engineering teams author commands for the scientific instruments and prepare to process and analyze science data received from the spacecraft.

"Through my job at the SPOC, I was able to connect with a lot of people from many different backgrounds in academia and industry, and I always enjoyed working with them," Wibben said. "I wanted to continue working on this mission and really see it through, and in my new position at KinetX, I get to do exactly that."

"In a sense, the people at SSEL are the glue of the mission," Furfaro said. "In systems engineering, we develop mission requirements and define the architecture of the system at SPOC. We model the behavior of the system, then we do verification and validation to make sure everything works as it should. To perform these tasks, we use tools from industry, and we also develop our own processes and software code."

At SPOC, Wibben's job entailed writing more than 1,400 science requirements of the mission and working with other team members "to make sure they're understood, they're clear, and they can ultimately be tested, so we can say at the end of the day we can meet this requirement."

At KinetX, Wibben was able to hit the ground running because of his diverse and practical experience gained at the UA. For example, he will use a combination of heritage codes from other space missions and specialized spacecraft navigation software for which he already had built add-ons during his time at SSEL.

"The connections I made during my time at the UA, interfacing with many people in industry, really helped quite a bit," Wibben said. "In addition, many of the skills I acquired during the research for my dissertation translated well. The simulations I'm running right now use an open-source software that I used as a student. I can jump right into this piece."

Part of Wibben's new job is writing code and scripts that will help make the navigation team's job easier, but many of the tools already have been developed, so he has to learn to use and manipulate the software in case the team gets misleading information from the spacecraft.

"Much of this job is knowing whether to go in and what to fix in order to make it work," he said. "We also are running simulations right now to optimize fuel use for our outbound cruise."

"In our lab, the students learn how to program and how to implement guidance and navigation algorithms," Furfaro said. "Although they're using established software in many cases, they have to develop a lot of modifications on their own. That is the training they're getting here."

On average, Furfaro advises eight doctoral students in SSEL. Currently, four graduate students are working on the OSIRIS-REx mission. Wibben is one of two who have recently graduated. In addition, three undergraduate students are gaining practical experience with SSEL. Three other students who graduated from Furfaro's group with master's degrees were hired by SPOC to continue working on the mission.

"I'm a big believer in space exploration and in training the future generation of students," said Furfaro, who serves as systems engineer for SPOC and has multiple students, graduates and undergraduates working with him on the mission. His lab follows other interests in addition to OSIRIS-REx, such as spacecraft guidance and control, intelligent systems for space exploration and remote sensing from space, said Furfaro, also the technical principal investigator of the UA's Lunar Greenhouse Project.

Ed Beshore, deputy principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission, added: "We frequently discuss the importance and role of students in our programs, and colleagues from our partner organizations have commented that, as a group, ours is one of the best set of student employees and young engineers that they have ever seen."

"The opportunity to work on a mission at the UA is very unique," said Wibben, who anticipates staying with the OSIRIS-REx mission all the way through, certainly through sample collection, and working with KinetX on future missions, which will rely on similar tasks. 

"I'm very grateful for what I got to do as a student at the UA. I got a job (in the) industry doing what I do."