NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) 2022 Intern
Hear about Vivek’s experience on the NASA JPL remote internship programme.
Vivek was selected by NASA JPL from a shortlist of high-achieving students who applied for the New Zealand Space Scholarship. Vivek’s engineering degree from the University of Auckland and current PhD research on operations and quantum computing put him at the top of that list.
Vivek Katial on mission operations, machine learning and donut catch-ups
What projects you have been working on at JPL?
I worked on two primary projects:
One was the Advanced Multi-Mission Operations System, or AMMOS, an operating system that controls mission operations and data processing capabilities for over 50 NASA missions. One of the core capabilities of AMMOS is the AMMOS Instrumentation Toolkit (AIT) -- it runs the server which manages the telemetry uplink/downlink and sequencing for JPL International Space Station and CubeSat Missions. I was working on enabling mission teams to leverage automated deployments of AIT using cloud resources on AWS. I was improving the existing automated deployment pipeline for AIT to increase its usability and maintainability.
The second project I worked on was a research project that involved measuring Extreme Precision Radial Velocities using Deep Learning. This research is used to improve the identification of exoplanets in other stellar systems. Stellar activity is a very difficult problem due to its complexity, but it must be overcome if we are to find Earth-like planets around sun-like stars using radial velocities. Using machine learning we can produce more accurate measurements of these radial velocities. My work involved improving the experimentation architecture the team was using to leverage G, investigating different architectures for neural networks and lastly, improving the error analysis.
What makes a JPL internship different and what was your experience?
The work itself is actually quite similar to what you might experience in a technology company -- writing code, fixing bugs, working on new features etc.
But the remaining 10-20% of work, when you think about the context -- its quite remarkable. It makes the problems you're working on so much more interesting, it also reminds you how lucky you are to have the opportunity to be the tiniest piece of the big puzzle. It really humbles you!
I also want to highlight the people at JPL -- there is a strong culture of collaboration, and feedback but also technical excellence. Despite the scale and scope of the projects people are working on, there are very few egos and although the bar is very high for technical work, everyone I engaged with was invested in your growth. From small things like giving feedback on how to improve your code to general feedback on how to make the most out of your time -- you get the feeling people actually care about you and are making sure you have a great experience. JPL has clearly invested a lot of time and thinking in building a healthy, inclusive but high-performing culture.
Lastly, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to see the lab. It was INCREDIBLE -- something out of StarTrek or Interstellar. Checking out the buildings like mission control, learning about quirky traditions like JPL peanuts and seeing live assemblies from the high bay -- really made for an awe-inspiring experience.
When you're at the lab -- you need to make sure you chat with all the people you get the chance to chat with too.
What did you get out of the internship programme?
I think I've highlighted most of this above -- but I also learnt how big the scope of missions are at JPL and how truly cross-collaborative they are. Learning about the institution, and how missions are kicked off, managed and maintained was a unique experience. Meeting people at the lab, looking at all the different faciltiies and listening to the stories of engineers and scientists working on different missions was also an epic experience.
What advice do you have for future interns?
I think I probably wrote a bit too much already, but I would say for anyone doing the program next time -- talk to as many people at JPL as you can, especially at the start. People are lovely; and it’s a great way to learn about the institution and its way of working.
Leverage things like "donut" catchups on Slack to meet people across the lab, and ask your supervisor to introduce you to others (as early as possible). There are so many cool projects people are working on at JPL and if you can try and work on more than one, it really improves your overall experience.
If you can, go to the lab and immerse yourself in the JPL Campus -- its like a real science fiction movie.