Katie Melbourne is up close and personal with the James Webb Space Telescope. As a systems engineer at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Melbourne is involved in commissioning for NASA's new flagship space telescope. At the same time, she is also earning her PhD in aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Below, Melbourne discusses her work, education, and how she maintains a balance in her life.
What is your role at Ball with the James Webb Space Telescope?
I joined the Webb team at Ball in October 2020 to help with commissioning the telescope after launch. This is a 24/7, several-month process of deploying the mirrors and aligning the telescope optics for science data collection. Half of our team at Ball deals primarily with hardware safety, and the other half works on the physics behind the alignment of the mirrors. I work on the physics side as a “Wavefront Sensing Scientist” (or “WSS”), and on shift we give recommendations on how to move the mirrors to end up with in-focus observations. For the year I was part of the team before launch, I oversaw the development and finalization of the Wavefront Analysis Guide (WAG), the document that provides an outline of required analysis throughout the commissioning process and that will be used as a log of our actions on shift.
What is it like working on such a major NASA mission?
The large-scale NASA missions inspired me at every point in my studies of space so far. The Kepler Space Telescope sparked my initial interest in exoplanets, data used in my first research publication came from the Hubble Space Telescope, and my first role at Ball was working on requirements for the Roman Space Telescope. Webb was still in testing when I was a NASA intern; at the time I could only imagine the impact it would have on the astronomy community, let alone the general public. This is the type of mission that will have results that will captivate a global audience and motivate the next generation of scientists. Knowing that every small thing I do as a member of this team will contribute to such important outcomes carries me through even the most challenging parts of my job.
What are you most excited about with the JWST mission?
My background is in astrophysics, and I am just now transitioning to engineering in graduate school. My main research for my bachelor's at Yale focused on the relationship between ultraviolet and optical activity of a type of star that harbors statistically higher populations of exoplanets, called an M dwarf star. The results of my paper will help prioritize the competitive observing time on Webb so that astronomers can observe M dwarf stars with potentially habitable exoplanets and gain a better understanding of the atmospheres on those exoplanets. And, of course, I am excited for Webb’s equivalent of the Hubble Deep Field and ability to see light from the first galaxies in our universe. The scope of science Webb will be able to accomplish is absolutely astounding.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD and come to CU Boulder?
Until my final year in college, I thought I’d pursue a PhD in astrophysics with the long-term goal of working in space sustainability policy development, and CU Boulder was my number one choice for astrophysics as well. I interned at Ball and loved the company so much that I decided to work here full-time before deciding what technical graduate degree would best support my interest in space policy. My first year in the aerospace industry exposed me to work in Space Situational Awareness (SSA), and it became clear that an aerospace engineering degree would be the best fit for me to do research in SSA and help me build a foundational knowledge of the field that would affect my future work in policy. Ball has strong connections with CU, and the quality of instruction I would get attracted me to apply as well.
What kind of research are you doing for your PhD?
Marcus Holzinger is my advisor, and I am working with him now to develop my first research project. We will be looking at how to optimally automate decisions that satellite owner-operators have to make on orbit to avoid collisions and maneuver efficiently. My first two classes toward my degree have provided me with useful context on how to solve problems from an engineering perspective and will allow me to jump into my analysis with confidence.
Earning a PhD while also working full time sounds intense. How are you balancing everything?
It’s been a learning process since I started last summer! I have been very transparent with both Ball and CU Boulder in setting expectations that are sustainable for all of us. Taking one class at a time allows me to be my best in my role as a student and employee, and I plan on adjusting as needed after finishing classes and moving to just dissertation work in a few years. Though I will be at CU Boulder for significantly longer than the rest of my cohort, my job at Ball helps ground what I am learning as a student, and my classes and research help me continually improve at my job. Making sure I block out time to reset with mini-road trips and weekends camping or hiking helps so much too.