James McCabe

James McCabe, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. student, has received the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship.  This fellowship is awarded to outstanding graduate students who receive funding for developmental research in areas critical to NASA’s long term goals of space exploration and the understanding of space.  James’ research for this fellowship is to develop advanced navigation schemes for planetary landers, such as the vehicles that would put humans on Mars or rendezvous with an asteroid.  James has been able to draw from the vast knowledge of the navigation experts at NASA Johnson Space Center. 

This project looks at applying multi-target tracking techniques to navigation problems, enabling a “multi-target navigation” architecture.  It is the responsibility of the navigation algorithm on a vehicle’s flight computer to take in measurement data from the sensors it is equipped with, such as altimeters, inertial measurement units, cameras, etc., and process that data to meaningfully improve the vehicle’s knowledge of itself—where it is, how fast it is moving, where it is pointing—and that estimate’s associated confidence with respect to probability and statistics.  Multi-target is fairly well studied if we just have a vehicle maneuvering around in free space, but the real world, and especially a vehicle traversing an uncertain terrain, contains moving obstacles and hazards of various shapes and sizes around the vehicle.  What this means is that the vehicle, in some sense, is surrounded by a target-laden environment where each target is some terrain feature, like a boulder, a crater, a landing site, another vehicle, etc.  The goal of this project is to develop a multi-target navigation architecture that robustly and accurately provides the lander with sufficient knowledge of itself while also gathering and maintaining information about the potentially hazardous stuff around it.   

This research can be applied to many real-life problems, whether it be space-based, such as planetary landers, rovers, docking with International Space Station, or formation flight of small satellites, as well as problems entirely unrelated to aerospace applications, such as manufacturing, medicine, and vehicle traffic.  This project will advance the current state-of-the-art by leveraging both classic research dating back to the Apollo era as well as brand new literature being published today. 

James is from Arnold, Missouri with a very supportive family back home.  He graduated Summa Cum Laude with his B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Missouri S&T.  As he is pursuing his Ph.D. under mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty, Dr. Kyle DeMars, he feels lucky to have this opportunity to contribute to the future of spaceflight, both manned and unmanned.