No frontier too challenging

Aditya Dave recounts his exhilarating and memorable experience participating in the 2022 Caltech Space Challenge

Earlier this year, PhD student Aditya Dave participated in the Caltech Space Challenge (CSC) as a  member of Team Voyager, which ultimately won the competition. Hosted by the California Institute of Technology, the challenge brings together students to participate in a space mission design competition. Students are split into two teams and work under the guidance of experts from industry, NASA, and academia to design their mission from the ground up. Applying to participate in the challenge is a highly competitive process and takes place over several months. Dave, mentored by his doctoral advisor Professor Rhonda Franklin, faculty from other College of Science and Engineering departments, and experts in the aerospace industry, successfully applied to participate in the CSC. It was a grueling yet exciting process. Although Dave is in the last leg of his doctoral program, he generously shared the details of his experience with us. Follow along in his own words as he describes his journey from applying to participating and ultimately winning the CSC.

What skills and experiences prepared you for the Caltech Space Challenge? 

I was always interested in applying my work in the space domain. The CSC gave me the perfect opportunity to showcase my skills. I developed most of the skills required to support my interest, and make me a good fit for the challenge during my second year of the doctoral program. That was when Professor Rhonda Franklin gave me an opportunity to be a part of a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) project that was being carried out in collaboration with Professor Demoz Gebre-Egziabher of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics (AEM). In this project, we looked at phase center corrections for GPS antenna receivers. In my third year I led a team of student researchers and submitted a winning proposal for the MTT-Sat CubeSat challenge organized by the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques (MTT) society. We were granted $3000 to work on our proposed concept which was to evaluate the possibility of developing a network of CubeSats to orbit the moon and  work as a pseudo-GNSS constellation to enable autonomous lunar navigation. We worked  on this project at technology readiness levels (TRL) 1-2, and submitted a follow-up proposal the next year for the second phase of the challenge that was aimed at extending the work to TRLs 3 and 4. Working on these projects provided me with the foundation that I needed for the CSC.

I also spent a good deal of time looking at the introduction videos of finalists of previous years’  challenges to get an idea about the quality of the applications that are received every year. Watching the final presentation videos from previous years’ challenges helped me understand what makes for a successful proposal. The application itself covered my interests, skills, mission design experience, leadership experience, and how I could contribute as a team member

How were you supported in those initial steps you had to take? 

Professor Franklin supported me right from the beginning. She  encouraged me to apply for the challenge and reviewed my initial draft. She also connected me with some generous subject experts  who were able to guide me  through the application. I received feedback  from Dr. Anthony (Tony) England, who was an astronaut on NASA’s Apollo missions. After revising my  draft application based on his comments, I was fortunate to have it reviewed by Marc Tillman (engineer at Boeing) and Professor Emeritus Charles Elachi of Caltech. I was also supported by Dr. Goutam Chattopadhyay, senior scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who advised  me on areas and experiences I should focus on within my application. Professor Gebre-Egziabher of AEM provided the final technical review. Staff in ECE supported me with tying up any loose ends and packaging the information in the application succinctly. 

When did you hear back and what were your next steps? 

I heard back from the organizers in the first week of January, letting me know that I was shortlisted for the final interview round. The interview focused on my interest in the space challenge and what I hoped to achieve by participating in it. There were some questions on collaborative work experience and how my skills could help achieve the goals set out in the challenge statement. After clearing the interview round, I found I was one of 32 finalists out of around 1000 people who applied for the CSC. 

What was the composition of the team?

The CSC co-chairs created two teams, Voyager and Explorer, comprising 16 students each. Almost all students in each team had a counterpart in the other team who had similar expertise so that both teams were technically matched. We were Team Voyager, and of the 16 students on my team, five were undergraduate students and the rest were graduate students pursuing their PhD degrees. Two students were science majors, 13 were engineering majors and one was pursuing a degree in design. In typical mission design projects, engineering solutions are determined keeping in mind the science goals. So the science major students had the important task of determining the scientific goals and instrumentation necessary to take the required measurements. The engineering team was split into multiple sub teams that focused on different areas. These included the design of trajectory and orbit, design of the ascent vehicle from Titan’s surface to Titan’s orbit (rocket) and rendezvous with the orbiter, design of the sample collection systems and its descent method onto Titan's surface, power generation and distribution between various subsystems, communication system design, and link budget analysis for the whole mission. There were multiple aerospace engineers, and system designers on both teams. I was the only electrical engineer on my team, and to my knowledge, there was no electrical engineer on the other team. All the students were from top ranking universities and most of them had some experience of working in space technologies either through their graduate studies or through internships in aerospace companies. 

Can you tell us about what went on at the challenge?

I arrived at Pasadena on March 20, 2022. There was an opening ceremony that evening that featured a speech by the deputy director of JPL Larry James. We also had the opportunity to meet fellow teammates and some of our mentors. After the opening ceremony, each team was assigned a workspace on a different part of the Caltech campus for the entire challenge week. Each team then went through a team building session with Nigel Angold, an expert from the European Space Agency (ESA) and JPL, who has a lot of experience working with large teams. After this session, both teams were simultaneously given the mission statement at 10:30pm and we all got to work. On the next day each team had a separate brainstorming session with JPL’s architecture team (A-team) and they gave us tips on how to come up with quick and streamlined solutions for all the engineering aspects of a mission design concept. We spent the rest of the day engaging with experts from entities like JPL, NASA, Northrop Grumman, and others. The remaining challenge days had a similar schedule: lectures by experts every morning, followed by working under the guidance of mentors who helped address any questions that arose. We typically worked from 8:30am to midnight every day, with a couple of breaks for lunch and dinner during which we networked with fellow challengers and mentors. The night before the presentation, most of us stayed up all night to wrap up deliverables including the final report. I remember being awake through the whole night and through the following day of presentations, closing ceremony, awards, and after-party. I think I was awake for almost 42 hours straight!   

We turned in our reports before our presentations which were about an hour long. The judges deliberated for a few hours before announcing the final result that our team, Team Voyager, were the winners of the challenge. They had a lot of positive feedback for both teams and several tips and suggestions for all of us. Importantly for me, I learned from the judges that my design of the communication subsystem and the tradeoffs I considered were some of the critical factors that contributed to our victory. I was happy that my skills made a meaningful  contribution to the larger mission design goal, and I feel very thrilled to have been part of such a dynamic and diverse team of people.

Caltech Space Challenge 2022: Team Voyager final presentation
Video credit: Caltech Space Challenge

What are your reflections on the experience? What are your thoughts looking forward? 

The Caltech Space Challenge was my first mission design experience and I am glad I was able to be a part of this experience. I would have been happy and grateful for the opportunity to learn and experience all that I did over the span of five days, regardless of whether my team won or not. Of course, winning the challenge was definitely a cherry on the cake. Wherever my professional career takes me in the future, I hope to continue my association with the challenge, possibly by volunteering to share my experience or expertise to future challengers.    

At the time of posting this, Aditya Dave has graduated with his doctoral degree. Focused on pushing the frontiers of antenna technology, a vital area with a sweeping range of applications from consumer electronics to space technology to healthcare, Dave will be joining Samsung Research. ECE wishes him the very best in his endeavors.