Space debris is a huge threat to human life in space stations and other spacecrafts because there are approximately 9,00,000 debris in the orbit as of today !
Abhinav Krishnan, our next pathbreaker, Astrodynamics Engineer at Neuraspace (www.neuraspace.com), works on spaceflight dynamics and development of collision avoidance manoeuvre systems for satellites.
Abhinav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transitioning from a career in Aerospace to Astrodynamics in order to work on real world challenges in space.
For students, as unmanned spacecrafts give way to manned shuttles, there will be a plethora of new challenges that we face in pursuit of “out of the world” destinations. There are endless opportunities in the endless realm of space !
Abhinav, tell us what were your initial years like?
I must say, whatever I have achieved is not mine, but a combination of efforts from my parents, my guru & my mentors. I was born in Chennai and brought up in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. I come from a Hindu household and my parents raised me with two simple yet powerful statements:
– ‘A smart person learns from not just his but others’ experience too’
– ‘We grow together when we help each other’
It took a while for me to realize the true meaning behind this. I come from a slightly lower middle-class household with just enough resources to carry out our day-to-day activities, but I believe where you start is not your problem but where you end up matters a lot. I was not a particularly athletic kid but I was into casual sports like football, basketball, etc. My interests were mainly in science (because who doesn’t love lasers and space travel?!) and I had a natural curiosity towards Space in general. As a kid, who has grown up watching Swat-Kats & Justice League on cable, I imbibed a lot of flight & space-related elements! Despite money problems, my parents never compromised on books and accessibility to information. From an early age, books and stories (like Amar Chitra Katha) played a very pivotal role in my creative development process. Some of that creativity, I channeled into art as well.
I also believe my parents set a good example of the above-mentioned ideals very well. My late father had worked in sales, communication and was also a playback singer in the late 70s. He left the industry to venture into and gain experience in sales, marketing and business-2-business networking. My mother was a talented & multi-skilled woman who, despite not completing her graduation traditionally, made sure the interested & passionate ones achieved their goals. Her choice to uplift the people who required it, has set a strong example in my life.
1st life lesson: Nothing is permanent in life except your thoughts and actions. Never give up on your dreams!
In 2007 (at age 13), my father was diagnosed with ‘Hepato-cellular-carcinoma’ or Liver Cancer on the day he got his promotion. He had no vices or bad food habits. We were told he would only live for less than 6 months, before passing away 4 days after his birthday in January of 2008. Despite many problems my parents had faced in their life, I was still happy and content. This moment was not it. I believe this was when I got the actual taste of depression, loss, failure and monetary crunch. I was by no means a straight-A student, though I always managed to get the general proficiency award every year. But now, I started flunking my 11th & 12th exams. My mother was even told to take me out of the school and maybe save some money, since engineering was a waste on me. We had absolutely no money left for my further education, or any career I would have chosen otherwise. We were surviving on the support of a few friends and family members. One thing that gave me strength was watching my mother take up the reins of the family back in her hands. She never gave up. She never portrayed any sign of weakness, despite being emotionally distraught. She did this so I would have a better life. Seeing her fight, inspired me to never give up. She is in a way my ‘Jiraiya Sensei’ (for those who know about Naruto)! Life happens, you lose & you get hurt. Now, you have only two choices, to either get up and fight, or to collapse and perish. I chose the former because perishing is not fun. I wanted to give my mother a better life and support her, while I fulfill my dream too. My dream was Aerospace, and I chose to pursue Aerospace engineering.
2nd life lesson: Set your morals and ethics right, and look out for each other.
Starting 2011, I pursued my engineering in Chennai. An old friend of my mother’s came upfront to sponsor my education for 4 years. He was one of the students my mother had guided in her school days to achieve his dream. He looked out for me the way my mother did back then. I knew this and I made it my mission to be the best I can be, during my bachelor’s degree. At that time, the only way I could repay his debt was acing my course and securing a good job via campus. I had plenty of options which I believe could have ruined me, as a young teenager. But one viewpoint that synchronized with my thoughts was, ‘will this help anyone?’.
What did you do for graduation and post-graduation?
I started Aerospace Engineering at Hindustan Institute of Technology & Science (HITS), Chennai and graduated with University Ranking in 2015. I left home in 2011 and for the first time I felt my actions had repercussions on not just me, but also my sponsor too as he was my guardian. I participated in different competitions during my bachelor’s degree. There was a particular competition called CANSAT which was a yearly competition where you design and develop a can-type satellite to accomplish a mission. It is held in Texas, USA. In 2013 & 2014, along with an amazing professor of flight mechanics, we organized a brilliant team of equally (if not more) passionate engineers from my university, to compete in this. I worked on the trajectory and systems engineering of the payload. This was a crucial competition. It put our university on the international stage as we achieved the 8th position out of 64 teams worldwide. It also gave me a very good exposure to the field of Aerospace within India and helped me secure my first job.
After graduation, I worked at a company called Expleo India (Formerly Assystem India), focusing on Flight Physics with Airbus & Gas Turbine Stress Engineering with Rolls-Royce. It gave me immense happiness to work on projects such as Airbus A330 NEO and RR-Trent engines (Rolls-Royce). After my work at Expleo India, I spent my time preparing for a master’s degree focusing on Satellite Technology and Mission Design. I wanted to move from Aeronautics to Astronautics as my passion for trajectory design and Mission Design was immense.
Tell us, what were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My childhood experiences were a key player that shaped my interest in space. The books I read, and mainly Discovery Science on TV, inspired me a lot. There used to be a lot of programs about flight, space and astronomy. Back in Nerul (Navi Mumbai) in 1999, there used to be a lot of power outages. Sometimes, there would be clear skies with a full moon (a rare event). My father would wake me up in the middle of night to show me the beautiful night sky. He would point at the sky and mimic the motion of the stars. I know he wanted to be an engineer, but couldn’t, due to certain situations, but I believe I am living the life he would have wanted to live. It was actually this moment that captured my full interest. I am one of the very few people who actually got the chance to witness such a magnificent sky. I believe every kid should look up at the sky at least once, and wonder how it all functions and where do we fit within this. To put it objectively:
3rd life lesson: Dare to dream and plan because it’s totally free of cost.
It’s difficult, but if I were to narrow it down to who my 3 key influencers are, it would be my father (no doubts there), Dr. Abdul Kalam (because of his life history and his value for education) and Nikola Tesla (because of his morality & ethics). I chose them primarily because they have been through a tough life, never compromised on their morality and lived a life of passion.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?Tell us about your career path
As a B. Tech student:
I chose to pursue engineering because of my aptitude for science, criticality and genuine creativity. The first step would be to understand what you are good at and what you want to do. So, recognizing where you are and where you want to go, helps to understand how you can achieve it.
I used to do a lot of conceptual drawings of aircrafts, spacecrafts, just as I would imagine them. In some cases, aptitude tests would also help to identify the career path but it’s not definite. Personally, I never took any aptitude tests as I knew I wanted to follow the space & astronautics field. I knew I possessed the skills to design and visualize 3D space to a good extent, and also have a good affinity to Physics. After graduating 12th, I chose to do B. Tech at HITS, because it had one of the oldest aeronautics programs in India. I focused a lot on my bachelor studies to get good grades and great experience with projects. Yes, good grades are important as they represent a marker for qualifications; but it’s the passion & perseverance in the field which drives a lot of research and innovation. In other words, good grades will get you through the door, but passion & perseverance will keep you in that room.
I studied hard and also participated in a lot of video gaming during my B. Tech. I particularly played games like Microsoft Flight Simulator X and Orbiter. This was very captivating and got me hooked onto the idea of programming. Though B. Tech did not involve much programming, I would use my free time to learn Python, MATLAB, Ansys FLUENT and CAD software. Meanwhile, I was also working on competitions such as CANSAT and my personal pet projects like a Tri-Copter development and an Aerospike Nozzle. I chose to continue my Aerospike Nozzle pet project as my final year thesis, and it was very well received. These extra activities paid off when I attended various interviews during my final year at HITS.
At my first full-time job:
4th life lesson: You are a product of your thoughts & the people that surround you
I worked on Airbus A330 NEO aircraft flaps (the ones that extend from the wings) and the Rolls-Royce Gas Turbine Civil Engines. I got the chance to work on wing stress, flight stress and on the engine side, disk stress engineering. What I learnt in my bachelor’s degree proved to be quite useful at that time as the problems that we solve were essentially a combination of smaller fundamental problems. All complex problems indeed are a combination of individual simple problems.
While I was working at Expleo, I also pushed myself to use my free time (if there was any) to work on patent projects. I surrounded myself with like-minded and passionate friends who challenged my thoughts and also pushed me to realize that I had a stronger inclination towards the space sector compared to aeronautics. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my projects at Expleo, I was interested in exploring opportunities in the Space sector. After 2.5 years at Expleo, I left Expleo to do my own research into the kind of master’s degree I should choose. I made a list of my interests based on what I wanted to do. Then I read through several articles on how the space industry is evolving, from several new space news outlets and YouTube. It gave an incredible insight into the future of the space industry.
I set a timeline of 6-9 months for applications to several programmes outside India to gain a global view of what is happening. I realized I can get admissions in universities with IELTS which is an English competency test or GRE which is an aptitude competency test. Both of these are for post-graduate programmes. I completed my IELTS exam with a good score required for my master’s degree. Then I applied for the ‘Spacemasters programme’ as part of ERASMUS Joint Master’s Degree programme in Sweden and the UK. Here’s a caveat: the cost of education abroad is just too high, but the returns for this risk are also good enough. So, I had to select universities which provide free master’s education (sort of) and have a good research programme. Ultimately, I realized that Germany has great universities such as the TU9 (top 9 research & public universities). Due to my B. Tech experience, my corporate experience and several space-related projects, I felt the Technical University of Munich (TUM) would be a good fit for the application. It also has a free master’s programme which means no tuition fee and also, it’s a very good research university. I applied for a Master of Science course (M.Sc.) called ESPACE (Earth Oriented Space Science & Technology). Here the key is, patience. The process is slow and it is slow for a reason. To not get bored during the process, I started learning German so I would have some skill development as well. After about 2 months and an interview, I got accepted at TUM. Next comes the visa part and I believe there are many helpful websites out there which give a structured approach to acquiring a German student visa.
Master’s degree at TUM:
During my M.Sc., I focused on topics such as orbital mechanics, dynamics and mission design projects. I worked on 2 satellite missions during my 2.5 years master’s course at TUM. I attended several conferences and then came the major turning point in my interest. Throughout my M.Sc. I was a bit unsure about my career as I was still in love with orbital mechanics. I came across flight dynamics and space situational awareness topics such as space debris and asteroid detection. Space debris includes junk and defunct satellites which can cause a serious problem for humanity in our quest to become an interplanetary species. To know more about this, I would suggest watching the movie Gravity (2013) and read more about Kessler Syndrome. The movie gives a slightly exaggerated, but close to real representation of the Kessler Syndrome. I am reminded of a meme that my professor at TUM shared during our project work.
One of the satellite missions I was working on, was to detect small debris less than 1 cm flying at ~8 km per second. The other satellite mission was to detect and observe the agriculture in Germany through remote sensing (another interesting field). I worked on developing the scientific study for both the satellite missions, designing the payload and later on, systems engineering (overall monitoring and planning of the team and individual subsystems of the satellite). During this period I co-authored a paper for the International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC, US. Now one of the missions is planned to be launched in 2024 by WARR. WARR is one of the biggest student associations in Europe, founded at TUM.
While working on the two satellite missions simultaneously at TUM, I focused on student jobs in Munich. Student jobs are mini-jobs that allow you to work part-time in a week and earn some money to sustain yourself. It also adds value to your portfolio and the kind of job you want. I learnt that there was a lot of flexibility available to me at TUM, so I converted one of the satellite missions into one of the 2 mini-jobs that I undertook and this helped me get through the critical COVID conditions. The best part of all these experiences is that you learn how to cope with failures and speak/communicate with people. It was not all pleasant and happy. I had my set of failures, but as they say, it is better to fail and learn than to have never failed.
Fig 1: ESA’s Flyeye telescope for Near-Earth Objects and space debris observations (Image courtesy: OHB Italia)
Due to many hours spent in conferences and networking, I found an amazing connection/contact who offered me an interesting thesis topic. My M.Sc. thesis was carried out with the European Space Agency’s Planetary Defense Office (ESA-PDO). The thesis required me to estimate the number of asteroids that the telescope developed by ESA will detect. I had to use a lot of Maths and Physics with a bunch of programming (all the subjects I failed in school) to estimate the path of asteroids and its potential hazard to Earth. The telescope (picture above) is called ‘FLYEYE’ (because of the fly’s eye-like structure in order to collect light) or ‘NEOSTEL’ officially. What I gained from this: network with scientists, astrodynamics experience, amazing telescope knowledge and the excitement of helping in solving a problem towards space safety.
How did you get your first break?
My first job was offered via an on – campus interview with Expleo India for aerospace projects. It was a day-long process and I was the last person of the day who was interviewed. Along with me, 2 others were also selected out of ~400 students who sat for the campus interview. There were 4 rounds starting from the aptitude exam, group-discussions, technical rounds and a HR round. It was my first big-break since I had turned down an offer from another IT company because I wanted core Aerospace experience.
I got my current position through networking via LinkedIn. I was looking for a specific profile combining astrodynamics and space situational awareness. Neuraspace was recruiting at that time, and I applied for this position.
I believe networking is critical in this field (or any field for that matter). At the end of the day, we are dealing with humans. It is important to know that there are people like you out there, and having a clear communication with them helps in future collaboration.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Major Challenge 1: I would thank the naysayers in my life for providing me a great challenge to prove. I faced that during my school time after my father had passed away, and later at work too. There are always multiple ways to approach a problem. I chose to look at the naysayers as a challenge and I wanted to work towards proving myself right. I kept calm and strategized on how to solve the problem so there is no loss. I spent extra hours at work and eventually came up with a solution to resolve the issue.
Major Challenge 2: I had two shoulder dislocations on the right side within a single year, July 2019 & June 2020, while living in Munich. I went through a serious rough patch where I was alone and was barely able to sleep for a few hours, without having searing pain every half hour. I was lucky to have some great friends who helped me during this patch and I am very grateful to them. To this day, I still have shoulder pain occurring suddenly, on the right side. But on the bright side (and there is one!), it taught me the value of patience. To heal a ligament tear, it takes years and the only other option is surgery, which I am not fond of, honestly. The only thing that gave me strength during this time is what my father used to tell me as a kid. ‘When you face a dangerous problem, take inspiration from the Armed Forces. They are away from their friends and loved ones. They survive bullet wounds and fight so that the greater goal is achieved. ’ My goal is absolutely nowhere close to their sacrifice, but it surely does inspire me as I have a goal too, and it is worth fighting for, in my opinion.
Where do you work now and what problems do you solve?
I work as an Astrodynamics Engineer at Neuraspace (www.neuraspace.com). I work on spaceflight dynamics and collision avoidance manoeuvre system development for satellites. In simpler words, I predict the satellite movements in the orbit, see if there is a high probability of collision with space junk or debris or another satellite, and suggest the best way to get out of the way.
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
As an astrodynamics engineer, one needs to have critical thinking ability and also the ability to visualize space in 3D. Basic understanding of orbital kinematics, dynamics, and understanding of how celestial objects interact with one another is very important. Hence, mathematics, physics and chemistry are the core subjects. Going further, numerical modelling is a crucial subject as the calculations required to understand the interaction between various objects (courtesy of gravity and general relativity), is complex. So, computer science plays a major role here in modeling these interactions via programming languages such as Python, JAVA or Fortran.
What’s a typical day like?
Generally, a typical day in my life consists of speaking with my mother in the morning, getting some exercise & making a health-mix porridge. Since I am working from home due to the remote-first policy of my company, I don’t have to travel far. Just a few feet and I am at my desk. Generally, I would have some morning meetings and the day starts with those meetings. I would generally have some orbital simulations running and/or some programming tasks. If I am bored, I relax with a long walk (if it’s not snowing), or some short video gaming session on the desktop. After lunch time and then some research work, I have dinner in the evening and sleep. Work-from-home has its own perks and also its difficulties, e.g., having the bed in the same room as work desk is not exactly very helpful for concentration when bored!
What is it you love about this job?
What I love about my job the most, is not just the math and physics, but the real-world applications that we get benefitted from, but are not aware of. We use GPS to avail the services of Swiggy, Uber, etc. GPS or GNSS uses all of these critical components. A small change or error in this can give extremely wrong values as we are dealing with relativistic velocity of light. A flight we take, uses GNSS too, through various RAIM, ARAIM concepts. A small error is fatal to the system (though there are serious redundancies in place). A small satellite hit by < 1cm debris can punch holes with energy greater than a sniper round. It is the hidden sense of criticality that fascinates me about this field. Apart from that, astrodynamics give rise to the coolest looking highway in space (in my opinion):
Fig 2: “The Interplanetary Superhighway, an Artist’s Concept” Artist: Cici Koenig, Caltech Graphics Group. For the NASA Exploration Team, 2002
How does your work benefit society?
We are a space-faring species. We went to the moon and came back. We plan to colonise Mars. We like to put ourselves in the shoes of Joseph Cooper and want to get to the nearest wormhole (Interstellar). All of this is possible if there is no major hazard in our Low Earth Orbit (100 km to 2000 km). There are approximately 9,00,000 debris from 1cm to 10cm in size and 34000 debris greater than 10cm in the orbit as of now (numbers increasing as we find more). Each of them is capable of creating 5 -10 more debris when it hits a satellite, and thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) more when satellites hit each other. Soon, we will be blocked by a cascade of debris generating events, locking us on Earth, until we clean our mess. An even greater threat is to the human life in the space station and any other spacecraft.
Fig 3: A 200 gram object hitting solid aluminium at 6.7 km/s (at orbital speed) (Image courtesy: Big Think)
Fig 4: Mir solar panel damaged in collision with a Progress module of ISS. (Image courtesy: ESA).
My work focuses on predicting & avoiding possible threats such as this, using AI.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
In early January of 2018, I received an impromptu invitation to give a guest lecture on ‘Aircraft Engine Trends’ at Kings Cornerstone International College in Chennai, to a small batch of bachelor’s degree students pursuing a hybrid coursework in Aeronautical Engineering with Cranfield University. I was neither prepared for the presentation nor did I have the right attire, as such, due to the impromptu nature. I had just quit my previous company and that morning I was returning from my old university after receiving my letters of recommendation for my master’s degree. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the invitation had arrived from an ex-professor of HITS (where I did my B. Tech) with whom I did my B. Tech thesis. I was only prepared based on the practical and professional experience I had gained over the past 2.5 years and some personal research. This is very memorable because this is when I realised, I am no longer the old introvert, and teaching is really fun!
Fig 5: My first ‘teaching’ experience!
As you can see the whiteboard was the only ‘presentation’ tool for me that day!
Your advice to students based on your experience?
5th life lesson: Keep an open mind and explore, since every little bit adds up.
My main advice to any interested person is, be passionate, persevere hard and be patient when things do not go your way. I know this first hand and I can say with confidence that entropy happens. But that’s expected of this universe. You always have an option to let problems override your emotions, but you also have an option to rise up and make your story interesting. By keeping an open mind, you are more susceptible to finding solutions. Almost all problems are solvable when broken down into smaller digestible chunks.
I am currently working on an initiative called The Out-Of-Syllabus Society (or TOSS for short) in India, during my after-work hours with a bunch of like-minded individuals to make impact at grassroots level by providing the right education & mentorship opportunities to underprivileged students in remote areas through hands-on learning. We hope to make it into a sustainable infrastructure, so the students have better options & guidance towards realising their dream and goals.
Thank you for your time to read through my life story.