For graduate student, satellite research turns math into something tangible
Katie Mott remembers the first time she heard a conversation beamed off a tiny satellite not much bigger than a loaf of bread.
“It’s so exciting, it really is,” she said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Mott, a first-year doctoral student studying satellite operations in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, holds a fellowship from the Doctoral Scholars Program of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, or ICTAS.
Mott had always loved math, and was drawn to engineering and Virginia Tech for its applications-oriented approach to mathematics.
“I want to be able to say, at the end of the day, okay, we did all this work and ended up with something we can use,” she said.
An undergraduate class at Auburn University sparked Mott’s interest in small satellites. After graduating with degrees in physics and mechanical engineering, Mott spent two years at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Army’s satellite operations are based.
There, she worked on projects investigating the best ways to communicate with and command the satellites.
Satellites come in a range of sizes, but some of the smallest ones, called CubeSats, can be less than a cubic foot. Much less expensive than larger spacecraft, they can be used for a wide range of applications, including communications and imaging. They’re also ideal for collecting data on atmospheric phenomena — for example, the gamma-ray flashes that sometimes occur during lightning storms, a project Mott worked on as an undergraduate.
And a fleet of multiple satellites deployed at once can collect detailed, high-resolution data with a relatively inexpensive, adaptable network.
“CubeSats are very new,” Mott said. “They’ve been around less than a decade, and we’re still discovering what we can do with them.”
Mott — who had known since she was a teenager that she wanted to get her Ph.D. — is now working on those discoveries herself.
The complex engineering of small satellites and their many potential applications are active areas of research at Virginia Tech. The Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology, the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, and faculty from multiple departments work on projects studying everything from satellite communications for public safety and emergency management to fundamental research on space weather.
Mott’s doctoral advisor is Jonathan Black, an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering in the College of Engineering and director of the Aerospace Systems Laboratory at the Hume Center. His space-engineering research often focuses on applications for national security, a natural match for Mott’s background with the Army.
Black recommended Mott for the Doctoral Scholars Program, which covers tuition, travel funding, and a stipend for four years.
Jointly funded by ICTAS, the Graduate School, and the student’s college and department, the program offers a more competitive funding package than any of the contributors might be able to independently, which can play a key role in a prospective student’s decision to come to Virginia Tech.
“If you talk to these students that we help recruit through the Doctoral Scholars Program, you realize immediately how exceptional they are,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS' interim director.
“A major part of our mission as an institute is to help support research in the colleges and departments, and graduate students are really the engine of research productivity at the university. If you can get the top students to Virginia Tech, working with our talented faculty, that’s a huge piece of building a successful research program.”
And in addition to taking a full courseload, Mott is already diving into research, exploring topics including how to ensure these small satellites hew closely to a precise trajectory and perform tricky navigational tasks like flying near other spacecraft. This work has already contributed to two papers in academic journals — all in Mott’s first semester of graduate school.
Being able to offer a competitive stipend, Black says, is key to recruiting these top-tier students.
“It’s critical. The best students are going to get multiyear funding offers from top-10 engineering universities,” Black said. “Katie could have gotten accepted to any top-10 research university, and she would have gotten funding offers from any of those places. She could have gone anywhere. Being able to offer these fellowships keeps us competitive.”
Since the program was founded in 2007, it has supported 84 Virginia Tech doctoral candidates from six colleges. In addition to the student’s academic record and accomplishments, selection criteria for the program include the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration in the student’s proposed graduate work. Doctoral Scholars are also involved in experiential learning activities, including mentoring undergraduate students, as part of their graduate education.
Mott, for her part, is happy to be a student again. “One thing that I love about being in school is that you are constantly learning things,” she said.