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Two intriguing investigations -- One flight-proven spacecraft

Matt Abrahamson

Matt Abrahamson

AutoNav Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Matt Abrahamson

What's the coolest thing about EPOXI?
We are seeing something up close that nobody has ever seen before. It is exciting to contribute to discovery and exploration. I also find it a thrilling challenge. Without AutoNav (Autonomous Navigation System), the most important, detailed pictures near the closest approach flyby cannot be recovered. AutoNav must be configured to be robust to whatever that the comet throws at us: fractured or split comet, banana-shaped comet, outgassing jets, large craters, and bright coma/dust. We hope to see something exciting, and hope even more that our AutoNav system can handle it.

Why do you like working at JPL?
We build and fly one-of-a-kind spacecraft here at JPL. I can take the elevator through building 264 and pass 10-15 project offices that are currently flying robotic spacecraft around our solar system. The work here is challenging and interesting. The people that work at JPL are all incredibly talented, so there is always someone on campus who can help solve tough problems.

What is your job on the EPOXI mission?
I am one of two AutoNav engineers. We model and simulate the performance of the EPOXI Autonomous Navigation system (AutoNav) for the Hartley 2 encounter. AutoNav is intended to run during the last few hours around the Hartley 2 closest approach to correct for errors in our trajectory prediction using optical pictures. AutoNav is autonomous because it will take optical measurements and solve for a new trajectory without any communication from the ground. We are configuring AutoNav to be as robust as possible to uncertainties we have about the encounter, including comet trajectory, coma brightness, comet brightness, pointing uncertainty, and comet shape.

How did you end up in Space Science?
I was a freshman at MIT and thought I would try out computer science, like most of the undergrads at MIT. After a miserable spring semester, I visited an open house in the Aero/Astro department and decided it would be much more exciting to be a rocket scientist instead of a programmer. During my sophomore year, George W. Bush declared that we were sending men back to the moon and I was all fired up about working in that area. I worked on a concept study for the to-be Constellation Program architecture during an internship at Orbital Sciences, which was really fun. Later, working as a grad student at Draper Lab, I investigated the performance of autonomous navigation systems for a potential lunar visit. Even though my thesis topic ended up being about Navy precision-guided missiles, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in space exploration, which made JPL a great fit for me.

What do you do in your spare time?
I enjoy a wide variety of activities in the greater Los Angeles area. I enjoy hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains near JPL, but I've begun to expand my horizons to the Sierra Nevada mountains. I also enjoy a good day at the beach with a boogie board. I also can't forget about my enjoyment watching Red Sox and NY Jets games, which can be tough for a transplanted East Coaster, but lets just say I've gotten used to omelettes & toast with my football. I've also held a scuba diving license since 2006, but I haven't ventured into California waters yet. No worries, though, because I hear that if you've learned to dive in Massachusetts, you can dive anywhere.

Who in your life inspired you?
Too many people to name here. I've met a lot of people and the ones I respect the most tend to be kind, honest, hard working, and stick to their principles. I am always inspired by people who are passionate about something in their life. I have found examples from family, high school teachers, and even a few old school professors from MIT.

What is one yet-to-be achieved life goal?
Have a great list of stories to tell my grandkids when I am an old man.

Were you science-oriented as a young person?
Oh, yeah. I used to spend my days at the pond down the street trying to catch frogs and turtles. One time I caught a couple toads, brought them back to our kiddie pool in the back yard, and next thing I knew I had tadpoles! My first ecosystem!

I'd say I'm more of an adventurer. I've always been fascinated with history and the expansion of civilization around the world. Now the frontier is no longer the New World or the Wild West, but outer space. I think humans have a natural tendency to explore to greater horizons.

What was your favorite book as a young person?
Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

What did you want to become when you were young?
I never really dreamed about anything in particular. I just wanted to end up as a friendly guy with an enjoyable job and a lot of good friends. I think it worked out.

If you weren't working in space exploration now, what might you be doing?
I'd probably be a teacher or join my brother in marine science.

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