The Rocky Mountain Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the world’s largest aerospace technical society, has selected researcher Scott Piggott as its 2020–2021 Professional Engineer of the Year. Piggott, a spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control software engineer at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), has worked on several programs from inception through flight, including the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule, the Orion capsule, and the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM).
In awarding Piggott this honor, the institute recognized Piggott’s selfless leadership in the aerospace field, citing his “commitment to the betterment of our community” through his “leadership in developing a new attitude determination and control system for the Emirates Mars Mission.” Piggott worked on Hope, the mission’s Prius-sized spacecraft, at LASP as part of an international team led by Project Director Omran Sharaf from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in the UAE and Project Manager Pete Withnell from LASP. The probe launched from Japan in July 2020 and went into orbit around the Red Planet in February 2021.
We recently caught up with Piggott to learn why he decided not to become a lawyer, the novel approach he and his team used to develop the new attitude determination system, and what this award means to him.
LASP: What led you to study engineering?
SP: Growing up, I always liked playing around with making things work. Although I thought I wanted to be a lawyer until I was well into high school, in the end I decided that I wanted to build things—though several of my colleagues would probably tell you that I’m still a bit too argumentative at times!
LASP: Why did you decide to specialize in spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) systems?
SP: I came to the CU Aerospace program for graduate school because I really wanted to work in aerospace, but aerospace organizations hadn’t shown much interest in my mechanical engineering skills. After talking with Dale Lawrence about working in his lab on a solar-sail project, I decided to focus on control systems, and from there on out, I was off to the races. After graduating, I took a job working for a rendezvous-GNC group at Johnson Space Center, and after that I was well and truly hooked on GNC!
LASP: What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve faced in your six years at LASP, and how did you overcome it?
SP: I would say that the effort of finishing and integrating the attitude determination and control (ADC) and vehicle-level flight software for EMM was the most difficult challenge in my career to date. I was a bit naïve about how much difficulty there would be in putting together the whole system on new hardware on a very tight schedule. There were multiple periods where it wasn’t 100% clear that we were going to succeed. I think what enabled us to be successful in the end was being hard-nosed about delivering things on time while remaining uncompromising about what constituted successful performance for the system. The Hope Probe wouldn’t be in orbit around Mars now if we hadn’t kept asking unpleasant questions about how well things were really working and pushing on further development until we were satisfied with the performance.
LASP: How did your approach to developing Hope’s guidance system differ from previous missions?
SP: Compared to my previous experience, we took a fairly risky approach to the development of this subsystem on EMM. In addition to developing all new algorithms for hardware we hadn’t used before, we worked with a team that included at least 15 CU graduate students over the life of the program. Employing so many students was wildly different from my experience prior to coming to LASP and quite different from what organizations similar to LASP are generally comfortable with in flight programs. But we were pretty confident that we could pull it off, and I think our experience in flight demonstrates that we were correct. I’ve greatly benefitted from working with a group of very talented and driven students, and I can’t say enough good things about teaming up with them. I’ve also very much appreciated my collaborators on the Attitude, Determination and Control subsystem. These include Dan Kubitschek, Thibaud Teil, Sumeru Horner, Mike Davis, and intern Rachel Mamich from LASP; Hanspeter Schaub and the AVS Laboratory group at CU; and Eman Mohammed and Ali AlSuwaidi from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
LASP: What’s new about the mission’s attitude determination and control system?
We overcame some pretty significant hardware quirks that we found on the ground prior to launch as well as a few additional ‘funnies’ that manifested in flight. We tried to design and test a system that would use all of the available sensors and information at hand instead of only flying on a single system at a time, and this resulted in a system that doesn’t overreact to any single piece of information.
We’ve only lost pointing accuracy for about 6 seconds total of our entire mission so far, and even then, we were only wrong by a few degrees and recovered smoothly without any of our fault-handling systems kicking in. Working with the star-tracking experts at the Danish Technical University has really been a blast, and we’ve had a similarly good experience with the rest of our hardware vendors, including Honeywell reaction wheels and Adcole coarse sun sensors.
But really, the story behind our ADC system’s success is the effort and dedication put forth by our highly international team. We insisted on a high level of involvement and accountability from everyone, and that group delivered on all counts. I’m lucky to have worked with them all and to have gotten great mentoring and leadership from Dan Kubitschek and Hanspeter Schaub, too.
LASP: What does receiving this honor mean to you?
SP: I am really over the moon about being selected by the AIAA for this award and would like to thank Hanspeter Schaub for nominating me. These last 18 months have been crazy for everyone, and adding the EMM launch preparation and flight to the pandemic was truly insane. Working on such an exciting program with people from across the world, and having success with that ambitious undertaking, has been the high point of my professional career, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it, though I hope to never have an experience quite so difficult, technically challenging, and emotionally involving again!
Given the sacrifices that I’ve made and that I’ve seen my team make, I feel very honored to receive this award as recognition for the efforts we’ve all made to put some amazing instruments in orbit around Mars. I’m also happy that my kids were able to see it in real time, so they know that truly anyone can participate in an interplanetary mission. I’m looking forward to their taking over from me some day!