College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Graduate Student’s Algorithm Wins Competition at NASA

After receiving the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship in April of 2015, aerospace engineering master’s student Kyle Webb spent 11 weeks at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. During his time at NASA, Webb fine-tuned the aerocapture guidance algorithm that he has been working on as part of his thesis work under Dr. Ping Lu.

Kyle Webb
Webb will gradate with his Masters degree in August.

The fellowship culminated with a simulated fly-off comparing Webb’s algorithm to algorithms that NASA had previously developed.

The goal of the simulation was to reach an elliptical final orbit around Mars while minimizing propellant consumption. The simulation tested three different vehicles using 8,000 dispersed trials each for both a one-sol and five-sol target orbit, with the main figure of merit being the delta-v requirement for which 95% of the test cases would reach the target. At the end of the simulation, Lu and Webb’s algorithm was declared the winner.

“It was great to win. Dr. Lu had flown up for the week to see the simulation so it was neat to see it actually work,” Webb said.

In addition to the simulation, Webb also sat in on the NASA wide Technical Interchange Meeting to discuss the Evolvable Mars Campaign, designed to address key issues for future human missions to Mars. The results of the fly-off were presented, and due to the algorithm’s success, it is being considered for use in a future Mars mission.

Webb had originally applied for the fellowship the previous year but was denied. His persistence paid off as he was granted the fellowship on his second try and was pleased that he didn’t give up.

“I’m happy I ended up getting it, especially after trying two times,” Webb said. “It was great to go see a NASA center for a while and see what the day to day life was like. I ended up making quite a few friends among some of the interns who were there as well.”