Robots in Space

Robots in Space

Let’s face it – space exploration is pretty cool. So cool, that it motivated Natalie Panek to passionately pursue a career in aerospace engineering. But turning our solar system into a junkyard of broken, drifting satellites? Less cool.

Luckily, Natalie is involved with an out-of-this-world project to ensure our future in space exploration is sustainable.

“Instead of letting satellites become space debris at the end of their life, robotic arms and tools would be used to make a defunct satellite functional again, by refueling it, or by installing new components,” explains Natalie.

Realizing this goal has become a major initiative of Canadian company MDA Space Missions, and Natalie has been at the heart of it. After completing an internship with NASA, Natalie was hired by MDA as the only operations engineer on a multidisciplinary team designing the Next Generation Canadarm.

“I was responsible for mission planning and analyzing the workspace of the robot so that it could access the needed locations on a space satellite,” says Natalie. “I also decided what camera views would be needed by tele-operators on the ground to do the repairs.”

By the end of the project, Natalie was responsible for operating the robotic arm, and giving key demonstrations of the new Canadian technology to NASA, SpaceX, and other interested customers.

“It was overwhelming and challenging to dive head-first into an unfamiliar situation that really pushed my limits. But I learned more than I ever expected from my peers, and by working on the full life cycle of the project,” Natalie shares.

Natalie’s work has become a stepping stone on the path to making space exploration socially responsible. Using robots to maintain, enhance and extend the life of commercial spacecraft is fundamental to achieving the goal of a sustainable and affordable space infrastructure.

The project has also affected Natalie’s view of earth-bound technology.

“Innovative technology can revolutionize the way we live and work. And engineering is all about innovation; allowing curiosity to run its course in our daily lives.”

Natalie Panek is continuing her work with MDA Space Missions. She also volunteers as a mentor, and Advisory Council member, with the Cybermentor program. Natalie is a champion for women in science and engineering, and has been featured in several TEDx talks.

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