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SmartSat sends PhD students to NASA JPL for career-boosting internships

Emily Ahern (above) from the University of Adelaide and Anne Bettens (top) from the University of Sydney, will do a 10-week internship at JPL in the United States. Image: SmartSat CRC

The Adelaide-based SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is funding two PhD students to undertake an intensive ten-week internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, USA.

Aspiring space leaders Anne Bettens, from the University of Sydney, and Emily Ahern, from the University of Adelaide, have been paired with an expert mentor from JPL for the duration of their internship, providing them one-on-one access to an expert in their area of study. This pilot program with NASA JPL aims to set a blueprint for future internship opportunities with global space organisations.

JPL is a research and development lab federally funded by NASA and managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The centre leads the world in robotic space exploration and science, sending spacecraft all through the solar system, rovers such as Perseverance and Curiosity to Mars, a slew of Earth Science missions and providing cameras to the James Webb Space Telescope project.

SmartSat CRC Chief Research Officer Dr Carl Seubert, who worked at NASA JPL for nearly a decade, said it was challenging to narrow down the two successful applicants from the many high-calibre applications received, demonstrating the incredible potential that exists within the Australian space research ecosystem.

“We had many exceptional PhD students apply for this NASA internship, which is a testament to the skills being developed through SmartSat’s research portfolio for Australia’s fast-growing aerospace industry,” said Dr Seubert.

“I had an out-of-this-world experience at JPL working alongside experts on challenging technologies and the best missions, and I want to share that with other Australians. This program provides our students an invaluable opportunity to learn from some of the greatest aerospace engineers and scientists in the world and forge international collaborations that will last their careers.”

Anne Bettens is a PhD candidate in the University of Sydney’s School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering. Her work is focused on autonomous navigation of spacecraft. Anne has previously been involved in projects with Thales Alenia Space and ISAE-SUPAERO in France, researching space debris pose estimation using machine learning and silhouette imagery. Anne has published several academic papers and presented at various conferences, including the 2022 International Aeronautical Congress in Paris.

Emily Ahern is a Physics PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. Her work focuses on developing a compact optical clock for small satellites. Emily has presented her work at several conferences, most recently at the combined Australian and New Zealand Conference on Optics and Photonics (ANZCOP) and the Australian Institute of Physics Congress at the end of 2022.

She will embark on her NASA JPL internship journey in June 2023 and says she’s excited about the opportunity to further her knowledge in atomic clocks, learning from leading names in the fields of timing and precision measurement.

Professor Andre Luiten, Director of the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, congratulated Emily on her selection.

“I am delighted that Emily’s talent and dedication have been recognised through this internship, which will give her the valuable opportunity to interact with world-leading space researchers at NASA. It highlights the globally leading nature of Emily’s work with the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing, which has led to this opportunity from NASA to collaborate.”

SmartSat CRC has a strong industry-focused doctoral program which is actively building Australia’s high-tech space knowledge. Now in its third year, the program has already offered over 60 PhD student scholarships and aims to deliver education grants to more than seventy PhD graduates.

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