In the space near the International Space Station (ISS), the microgravity environment poses unique challenges for vehicular mobility. Service vehicles bringing supplies to the ISS must be prepared for the challenges of docking in a microgravity environment. Because of this, the vehicles are required to undergo rigorous testing; however, replicating space-like settings on earth is difficult and costly.
In an effort to refine autonomous docking, or the capturing of moving objects in space without the use of manual controls, Melak Mekonen Zebenay contributes to ongoing research that will one day lead to overcoming the challenges associated with docking in space. Fortunately, Zebenay is no stranger to overcoming challenges as he grew up in Ethiopia, where his opportunities to conduct space-related research were limited.
“Where I am from, space technology is hardly known. But I have always had a passion to study advanced technology, such as space robots and satellite technology,” said Zebenay. Zebenay circumvented this stumbling block when he obtained a scholarship and completed his Ph.D. at the German Aerospace Center while studying space technology. He says that this greatly increased his interest in continuing his research and advancing in the field professionally.
During graduate school, Zebenay worked on a team at the German Aerospace Center. The team’s goal was to develop satellite servicing technology, and this experience led Zebenay to his current research location at the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s largest research center. He works closely with the Satellite Servicing Capability Office (SSCO), a department devoted to maintaining the plethora of satellites orbiting the Earth.
To facilitate the SSCO’s mission of advancing satellite maintenance technology, Zebenay is developing a zero-gravity simulator to service satellites during orbit. This simulator includes both hardware and mathematical elements that re-create a docking event in microgravity. By repeatedly running experiments using this simulator, researchers can gather potent data to refine the docking process.
“My typical day is testing my simulator using different parameters and working on code debugging when I find an error,” Zebenay said.
This research will ultimately yield more efficient means to service the satellites that have become an important part of human life on and off of Earth. Until then, Zebenay is focusing on renewing the proposals needed to continue his research and playing football with his children.
When reflecting on the events leading up to his time at Goddard, Zebenay said, “After I completed my Ph.D. from German Aerospace Center, I started looking for an opportunity to extend my research work for future space technology development. I believe this program is the best choice to let me perform research on my proposal with the best scientist and engineers here.”
Zebenay conducts research under the auspices of the NASA Mission Directorate Research Participation Program. This program is managed by ORAU through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).