“Star Trek” and “Star Wars” feature visits to other planets in their science-fiction universes. They’ve got nothing on Wright State University graduate Bevin Duckett.
She’s doing the real thing — and in a sense for her, the sky in her science-fact world is not the limit.
After graduating from Wright State with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in computer science, Duckett quickly found herself at a center of space exploration: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Based on a referral from a Wright State faculty member, Duckett started working at JPL as an intern on the Mars Exploration Rover project, updating tools used for planning communications windows with the Opportunity rover.
“While interning, I participated in a tactical shift — the process of determining the rover’s activities for the next day and creating the sequence files to control those activities,” she said. “The next day we receive the images the rover had taken during those activities. There was the thrill of seeing images from an alien world that had been brought to Earth in a process I had been a part of.”
How did that make her feel? “It was incredible,” she said. “In college, I never thought I could work on something this cool. It is like science fiction meets real life.”
Duckett, who was hired full-time after her internship, has been working since 2015 on a project reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — a probe bound for Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. She is a flight software engineer on the Europa Clipper.
She divides her time between FSW development and the FSW integration and test team.
“FSW is the software that runs on the main processor in the spacecraft,” she said. “FSW is responsible for managing onboard activities like science collection and navigation, data processing, downlink and uplink of data, and spacecraft health and safety.”
The team is responsible for managing the FSW infrastructure, working with other teams to identify interface requirements, and testing and debugging the computer programs.
“The Europa Clipper will be the first spacecraft dedicated to the study of the moon Europa,” she said “It will actually orbit Jupiter in a highly elliptical pattern with short flybys close to the moon.”
Jupiter’s magnetosphere results in extremely high levels of radiation in the orbit of Europa.
“If the Clipper is parked there, it would fry in a matter of days,” Duckett said. “It’ll swing in, collect data, swing out, downlink data to Earth and receive instructions, then repeat.”
She added, “Europa is interesting due to strong evidence of liquid water — a key ingredient for life.”
She said there is an ocean under an icy crust, and geysers have been observed spraying water above the surface. The Clipper’s suite of instruments will capture visual, thermal, magnetic, spectrometric, chemical and radar data from the Jovian moon.
In October, Duckett received the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Charles Elachi Award for Outstanding Early Career Achievement for her role in the development and verification of the Europa Clipper FSW.
Duckett is quick to point out that it is not just her; she is part of a team of software engineers. When she started, she was one of about eight; at the height of development there were about 40; now the team numbers about 20. While development is winding down, she will continue working on the project nearly until it is launched in October 2024.
Being part of a collaborative team of space enthusiasts is what hooked Duckett on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“I really love working with the team. It’s far more collaborative than I had experienced at any other internships or research positions,” she said. “The work is challenging, but it is extremely rewarding to be with like-minded individuals and explore another world.”
She added, “When we teach science history in school, we don’t talk enough about the number of people who are involved with space exploration. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do these wonderful missions. Teamwork is essential to space exploration.”
Duckett is already at work on her next project as a member of the FSW team for the Sample Return Lander spacecraft for Mars.
This craft will land on Mars carrying the two helicopters and the ascent vehicle to retrieve the samples collected by the M2020 rover and return them to Earth. That mission is to launch late this decade.
While succeeding at her work in what “Star Trek” refers to as “space, the final frontier,” Duckett credits her Wright State experience as being an excellent foundation.
“I really enjoyed my time at Wright State,” she said. “The small class sizes in the different engineering classes provided better collaboration and better opportunity to learn and to ask questions than in large classes.”
She admits her career path was not what she had anticipated when she enrolled at Wright State. But once she started at JPL, she knew it was where she wanted to be.
Her advice to those who follow her at Wright State: “Be open to new opportunities when they come along. It’s important to keep an open mind. That will get you to some great destinations and to ‘go where no one has gone before.’”