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Natasha Nogueira on High Altitude Balloons, Cubesats and Perseverance


This is the fourth installment in our Stellar Minds series, where we profile Planet’s extraordinary employees and their accomplishments. Keep checking our blog for upcoming features on some of the most remarkable people in aerospace today.

This week, we’re talking to space systems engineer Natasha Nogueira, one of the stellar minds responsible for the success of our SkySats, including Skysats 19-21, launched yesterday.

What is your role at Planet? 

I’m a Space Systems Engineer, my official title is Flight Operator, and I work on the SkySat Mission Operations team. Really most of what that entails is keeping the fleet of SkySats we have up-to-date, running smoothly and fixing any issues that come up. There’s a lot of different tasks I find myself working on, whether it’s triaging why temperatures are looking odd on a spacecraft or correcting the sequences we use to command and control the spacecraft.

I also spend quite a bit of time doing cross-team work interacting with the Flight Software team. When they have a new update for the SkySats, I’m the one who will run the updates from an operations perspective. While flight software ensures that the updates themselves are functional, I make sure that they are compatible with the spacecraft, conduct my own testing and create a plan for how we will execute the updates. My role ends up being a whirlwind of different things, which is really exciting!

How has going remote and working from home affected your work?

Going remote, interestingly enough, has not been super hard. I wouldn’t say I enjoy being remote, but my team is really well equipped to be working remotely. My team alternates shifts, and when we’re on shift, we’re dedicating our time to operating and maintaining the satellites. These shifts run through the weekend as well, so most of us on the team are used to working from home. 

Can you describe a day, or shift, in the life of a Planet space systems engineer?

Working on shift is really just taking care of the satellites. We’ll manage maintenance activities, updates to spacecraft and triage any anomalies that pop up. 

Today, I was fixing an issue we see sometimes with our SkySat’s sequences, which can control different satellite activities including imaging. Sometimes sequences get cancelled and when that happens, one of the heaters in the spacecraft gets turned off which may have been a necessary measure in the early days of the SkySats, but is actually counterproductive now. So what I was doing today was actually coming up with a new anomaly procedure that will detect when one of these sequence-abort faults happen and it’ll just turn the heaters back on. 

Another part of my daily work, which I was actually doing just before this, was testing. We have three testbeds in the data center in San Francisco—exact replicas of the hardware on the SkySats, but laid out on flat panels. We use those to test any updates or changes that will eventually go up onto the spacecrafts. And once I’ve done the testing, I usually send my work off to other team members to take a look before it actually gets implemented.

Have you always wanted to be an aerospace engineer? 

For me, becoming an aerospace engineer felt like a slow process, but looking back, everything I did was always geared towards space and engineering. To start, the first internship I got in high school was actually at the Small Satellite Lab at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, run by former NASA astronaut Dr. James Newman. During that internship, I didn’t get to work on the actual satellites, but I learned a lot about them and my main project was on high altitude balloons. I started as a member of the team designing and building the circuit board, and three years later (during a gap year after high school) I was the team lead overseeing two different High Altitude Balloon projects. We built these payloads that somewhat resembled a cubesat and conducted high altitude flights with these balloons, sending them up to 100,000 feet or what we call “near space.” By doing that, we were able to simulate a space environment without actually being in space, and this let us do a lot of testing on things like radio systems or hardware that ended up becoming a part of cubesats (which were later sent into space!). 

Dr. Newman was my boss and mentor, and the experiences I got in that lab combined with the mentorship from such an inspirational and kind scientist was what really led me to embrace space and want to go into the space industry.

For a while, I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I wanted to do engineering or move more into astrophysics, because I did exciting astronomy research with young binary star systems in college, specifically analyzing protoplanetary disks. I’ve always been interested in space, how much we don’t know about it and the sense that everyone in the field is continually learning has always inspired me. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to stick with engineering, but within the space context. So I ended up putting my two passions together and became an aerospace engineer.

Natasha with a recovered payload

Natasha with a recovered payload that she designed, programmed and built for her solo senior Engineering Project in college, collecting data on solar cell efficiency at varying altitudes. Credit: Professor Carr Everbach (Swarthmore College)

How did you get to working at Planet?

Interestingly enough it was actually a PhD student that I knew in the Naval Postgraduate School that had years ago mentioned the name of a tiny startup named Planet. He mentioned they were doing cubesats and I was interested. So I remember looking up Planet, and back then there weren’t really any internship opportunities. I recall checking Planet’s website every year to see if there was a position I could apply for, and when I finally saw there were openings available in my senior year of college, I decided to apply. It was a really exciting opportunity for me. I thought, “Hey, I’ve been looking at this company for years to see if I could get in and come back to working on cubesats!” I applied right away and have been here for over a year and a half now. Planet kind of brought me full circle, back to working on cubesats that I had started on as an intern in high school.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you face in your work/field?

I think one of the biggest challenges links to what I also find so inspiring about the field; there’s just so much to learn and so much that we don’t know about aerospace. At times it can be challenging because you’ll get a new project and the topics you’re tackling are completely new and overwhelming. Other times you look around and it’s hard to find resources that are specific to space and the problem you’re trying to resolve. You need to do a lot more digging and be open to the fact that sometimes we just haven’t found an answer yet. These challenges also make it all the more satisfying when you do overcome an issue you’ve been stuck on, are finally able to find the resources you need or get help from other people in the field grappling similar hurdles.

Another challenge is that aerospace engineering is a male-dominated field. Personally, as a Latina engineer, I think I’ve been fortunate to have gone into STEM and not faced as many gender-based issues, as many other women in these fields have, but the few instances I’ve experienced I had to learn and grow from. I will say that it can be a little discouraging when, oftentimes, you go into a conference or workforce and it’s not as diverse as you’d hoped it would be. But I’m hoping that through my career and experiences I can encourage other Latinas to explore aerospace engineering, especially Brazilian-Americans, like myself.

Do you have a favorite career moment or experience you want to share?

Working with the Flight Software team has given me new opportunities that I don’t think I would have normally gotten. And one of these experiences has been preparing for launch. Normally  my team doesn’t go to the launch base because most of what’s being done there is either manufacturing or software set up–from taking SkySats out of their shipping containers to running through a whole list of pre-launch software procedures. 

That side of the work falls on the other teams, but getting to work with Flight Software, I’ve been able to be a part of this. Originally, before COVID-19 hit, I was going to get my software launch-base training at the first SpaceX launch this summer. But what ended up happening with COVID-19 was that I was the only person sent to do software set-up for both launches.

I knew what I had to do and I felt pretty confident in the procedure, but I remember sitting there and it was the first time that I had ever seen the actual SkySats and I have to admit I was pretty nervous. Honestly, these two experiences have probably been the highlight of my career so far. I went from working on these SkySats everyday from the ground to actually getting to that point where I was physically interacting with them.

Natasha Nogueira working on pre-launch procedures preparing Planet’s SkySats for launch

Natasha Nogueira working on pre-launch procedures preparing Planet’s SkySats for launch on the SpaceX Falcon9. Credits: Michael Soulage (Planet) and Bren Amiano (Planet).

During that time, I had help from people back on the West Coast (which I’m really grateful for), but I think getting thrown into the whole experience, when the first launch base was supposed to be my training and I ended up doing everything myself, was honestly amazing. I felt so much more confident once I had gotten through the first launch set up and carried that over to the second set up. That was honestly super rewarding and knowing that they’re going up to space is really cool! Plus, I got to touch the satellites and sign my name on one of them!

I heard you were a really integral part of setting up for the SpaceX launch of SkySats 19-21. Can you describe a little about the work you were doing down in Florida? What really goes on behind the scenes in preparation for a launch?

After moving all our equipment into the bay, I had to get the Electrical Ground Support Equipment (EGSE) racks, which are crucial for establishing communication with the spacecrafts, up and running. And these racks are also found with our testbeds at the datacenter which I’ve gotten to work a lot with in the past, so working with that hardware was familiar. Once the racks were set up, I had to complete some tasks related to encryption, to ensure that only we can communicate with the spacecrafts once they’re in space. Once this was all done, I was on pause, waiting for the manufacturing team to integrate the spacecrafts onto the S-rings, which will actually launch the satellites into orbit from the stack. With the satellites connected, I started the integral part of my work: the pre-launch procedures. For these procedures, I initiated connection with the spacecraft, powered them up and established communication, hoping that everything would go well after transportation, etc. And it did!

The pre-launch procedure boots up the flight computers, and goes through many tasks like updating sequences and conducting maintenance checks, including inspecting the S-ring integration. Last but not least, I put the spacecraft into launch mode which preps them for their upcoming journey and any automated back-orbit sequences that will run once they’re actually in space after launch. 

Natasha sets up deployer cables

Natasha sets up deployer cables at the SpaceX launch base in July. Credit: Michael Soulage

What advice would you give to people who want to work in aerospace engineering?

I would say two things to someone who wants to follow my path.

Firstly, always look for opportunities. If you’re passionate about something, it’s important to find opportunities to learn more, and this could even mean starting a project yourself. Working on projects, whether facilitated by yourself or an internship, will always help you by providing hands-on experience and a depth of knowledge you can only get from exploring ideas and practically applying what you’ve learned in school.

Secondly, aerospace is not exactly an easy field to get into. It’s crucial to not give up on yourself, especially when people don’t believe in you or might say otherwise. Seeing what people can come up with and accomplish is always amazing and it takes time. Some days you can be underestimated, but despite the tough field that aerospace can be in classes and in the workforce, I think always having that confidence and moving forward with conviction is key.