What do you do?

Anusha Mujumdar is a 27-year-old aerospace engineer from Bangalore. She is one of only 35 women across the globe this year who have been awarded the Zonta International Amelia Earhart fellowship for research into aerospace, science and engineering. Mujumdar is a part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Sample Return Mission, which will retrieve soil samples so scientists can study them to determine, among other things, whether there really is life on Mars. And she is a third-year PhD student at Exeter in the UK, working in the Department of Applied Mathematics on verification and validation of spacecraft controllers. Her friends teasingly refer to her as a rocket scientist

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What did you study?

Anusha is a third year PhD student in applied mathematics at the University of Exeter in the UK. She did her Bachelors in Electrical & Electronics Engineering from M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Mujumdar grew up on the Indian Institute of Science campus. She says she was never “very good at science and math, but in the 8th and 9th standard, I had good science teachers and that was what motivated me to go into science, when I was around 13 or 14”.

What do you like about your job?

At some point she was struck by the discovery that she could find patterns in any system that can be expressed mathematically.. “That really excites me,” she says. “The coolest thing I have done so far is work on the special controllers for the Airbus launch vehicle Ariane 5ME. I used some of my fellowship money to go to Airbus [an aircraft manufacturer] in Bremen, Germany, to work on it. The Ariane 5ME launches multiple satellites at a time, and to do that it has to stay in orbit for really long. One side of it faces the sun, so it has to keep rotating — the special controllers keep it evenly heated, preventing damage from thermal stress. And I worked on that.”

Anusha will be playing an important role in European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Sample Return Mission slated for lift off in the 2020s. Talking about her first reaction to the news that she won the fellowship, Anusha shares, “I was very surprised and extremely happy. It is such an honour to be awarded this fellowship, alongside some very inspiring women in aerospace science and engineering from all over the world.”

Can you explain the ESA mission?

Explaining in simple terms what is ESA’s Mars Sample Return Mission (MSR) and the significance of retrieving the Martian soil, Anusha says, “The Mars Sample Return mission has been proposed by various space agencies around the world, and has been the subject of significant research effort in the past few decades. The goal of MSR is to collect soil and rock samples and return them to Earth for scientific study. A typical mission scenario involves multiple spacecraft collaborating and communicating with each other. My current research problem deals specifically with spacecraft rendezvous during MSR, and the effect that uncertainty has on this process. In MSR, this rendezvous takes place in deep space, and so is a significantly complex problem. The MSR mission is important because it would revolutionise the way we study our neighbouring planet. We will no longer depend primarily on pictures or measurements taken by space vehicles and rovers. A rigorous analysis of Martian soil samples could reveal vital information about several aspects of the red planet. The most exciting of these is, of course, investigating the possibility of past or present life on Mars.”

As a student of Applied Mathematics, Anusha says the MSR mission is certainly an exciting problem to be involved in, for several reasons. “The first is the kind of challenges it poses. Several complicated engineering problems have arisen out of just this mission. Secondly, it will almost certainly dramatically alter our current understanding of our neighbour Mars and of the entire solar system.”

How did you get involved in the ESA project?

Revealing how she came to be associated with the project, Anusha says, “The research group I’m a part of (at the University of Exeter) works in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA). This project is funded by ESA and is in collaboration with GMV and TASF. Dr Prathyush Menon, my PhD supervisor heads this project at Exeter. To be completely honest, my work is only a faint reflection of his brilliance!”

Anusha considers her achievement insignificant as compared to her father Prof. Pradeep Mujumdar’s achievements, but gives due credit to her family for encouraging her.

The ESA’s mis­sion plans to col­lect soil sam­ple from Mars and re­turn to Earth. Part of the mis­sion will rely on ‘ren­dezvous and cap­ture’ tech­nol­ogy, which will al­low a can­is­ter to be re­trieved by a chaser space­craft in deep space once the sam­ples have been col­lected.

Anusha’s re­search re­lates to the so­phis­ti­cated ‘in­te­grated Guid­ance, Nav­i­ga­tion and Con­trol’ (iGNC) al­go­rithms that al­low this re­trieval to take place by pre­dict­ing po­ten­tial dif­fi­cul­ties the mis­sion may in­cur.

She is also cur­rently work­ing with Euro­pean Launch Ve­hi­cle in Rome for an­a­lyz­ing the per­for­mance of their launch­ers. A univer­sity an­nounce­ment quotes her say­ing: “To fol­low in the foot­steps of so many il­lus­tri­ous fe­male aero­space pi­o­neers is such an hon­our, and I hope my re­search can pro­vide some small con­tri­bu­tion to what is an ex­cit­ing, and land­mark space project.”

“My long-term goal is to con­trib­ute to­wards mak­ing space travel and ex­plo­ration much safer, and more ac­ces­si­ble to a larger sec­tion of hu­man­ity. I wish to work in the in­ter­face be­tween academia and the in­dus­try, and to bal­ance state-of-the-art re­search with in­sights into real-world space­craft sys­tems.” The Amelia Earhart Fel­low­ships are of­fered an­nu­ally.

Even though she’s involved in ESA’s activities, Anusha is proud of India’s progress in space research. She says, “India’s space program is without a doubt one of the most impressive in the world by any measure. I have not had an opportunity to be directly involved in any aspect of the Indian space program. As an Indian citizen I am simply in awe of all its accomplishments, particularly recently with Mangalyaan. Spacecraft systems have always fascinated me, but my real love will always be mathematics.”

In fact, my undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering! I moved to Aerospace Engineering as a research assistant in IISc, Bengaluru. The primary connecting thread has been maths.” She counts Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla and Amelia Earhart among her role models.