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Ivonne Rodriguez-Juarbe Limits Orbit Debris to Make Space Safer

Woman with reddish brown shoulder length hair smiles wearing a red shirt with a NASA logo that says "Goddard Space Flight Center"
Ivonne Rodriguez-Juarbe smiles wearing a Goddard t-shirt.

In observance of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sep. 15 – Oct. 15, 2020) we highlight Ivonne Rodriguez-Juarbe in today’s Conversations With Goddard

NameIvonne Rodriguez-Juarbe
Formal Job Classification: Aerospace Engineer
Organization:  Code 592: Instrument and Payload System Engineering Branch

What do you do, and what is the most important role you play at Goddard? How do you contribute to the mission of the center?

I’m an orbital debris specialist. These debris are human-made objects, such as abandoned spacecraft and spent orbital stages of launch vehicles, left in orbit because they no longer serve a useful purpose. My role within the team is to assist NASA in its commitment to limit the generation of this waste. In low-Earth orbit (below 1,250 miles), orbital debris circle the Earth at speeds of between 4 to 5 miles per second. However, the average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object will be approximately 6 miles per second. Consequently, collisions with even a small piece of debris will involve considerable energy. All the missions of our agency and all of its centers have to meet specific requirements. My task is to write up analysis reports and submit those reports showing that all these stipulations are met, which have been adopted in similar or different ways by space agencies all around the world. The essential part is avoiding the accumulation of satellites that are no longer operating. I carry out this analysis to corroborate how long the satellite lasts in orbit once it turns off and begins to descend due to the force of gravity and friction with the atmosphere.

As a rule, when the mission ends, the satellite cannot continue in orbit for more than 25 years. Once this satellite enters the atmosphere, it will most likely burn or disintegrate for the most part. However, you have titanium and stainless-steel residue that can survive in these extreme conditions. When this happens, I try to minimize the amount of matter with the potential to survive re-entry into the atmosphere, while also minimizing its probability of falling into populated areas. I do all this through a series of analyses according to the components of the satellite.

What mechanisms do you use to avoid an accident in orbit?

The Department of Defense monitors objects in space on a day-to-day basis. NASA and other organizations receive information about the location of these objects in a catalog. If NASA determines that something will come near one of our orbiting satellites, it will consider moving the satellite to avoid a collision. Goddard’s Concurrency Assessment Risk Analysis (CARA) group analyzes collision risk for NASA satellites in orbit and provides guidance to different missions on how to prevent a crash.  However, some objects are too small to be detected. In that case, the satellite must be readied to minimize the damage and impact on its performance. During the design phase of a Goddard satellite, my colleague Scott Hull and I analyze the design to identify sections that need to be reinforced to avoid impact damage from a small object. We focus mostly on those parts necessary to relocate or deorbit the satellite at the end of the mission to prevent the accumulation of inoperable satellites in orbit.

What is the most exciting thing about protecting satellites from orbital debris?

I work closely with satellite designers, since I am in charge of assessing each risk possibility model. Seeing how both areas of knowledge converge to obtain the best possible result seems very interesting to me. On one occasion, working on the ICESat-2 satellite model, I noticed a section of the tank that was less protected. We looked for various alternatives until the designers and I agreed on the best one, and got the satellite ready for its mission with an appropriate design and taking all the required precautions.

What is your academic background, and how did it allow you to get to NASA?

I attended University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus for my bachelors in physical sciences; the level of physics that I learned in college was to teach science classes in high schools. I graduated with that degree and then worked for a few years as a teacher at elementary, intermediate, and higher levels. In my classroom, I always tried to highlight the NASA missions that were carried out at the time, and I liked being able to bring that interest in science to my students. I always planned vacations that were close to NASA centers so I could visit them and experience firsthand the science and engineering within NASA. At 33, I had the opportunity to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. During those visits, I realized that was what I have always liked, because since I was little, I always had an interest in space-related things.

I went back to college and graduated as a mechanical engineer with the primary goal of working at NASA. One day, a group from Goddard Space Flight Center went to Puerto Rico to recruit for its internship program. I applied, went to the interview, and luckily, I was accepted. As an intern, I applied for what is now known as the Pathways program, which provides students with paid work experience and, to recent graduates, a dynamic professional development program early in their careers. When I graduated, I already had a job offer with Goddard.

Besides working for NASA, what prompted you to go back to college?

Usually, at the age of 30, people see this type of dream as something almost impossible. I wanted to prove that this was not true and that I still had enough skills to be in such a competitive work environment. Better late than never! Puerto Ricans use a phrase at times like this: “Voy a tirar p’adelante,” which means, “I will make myself go forward.” I’d rather try and fail than spend my whole life saying, “It would have been nice to try.” I didn’t want to experience that regret. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it is important to always fight for your dreams and never give up under any circumstances.

What do you like most about your job?

One of the things I like the most about my job is that I am involved in many projects simultaneously. At Goddard, all space projects need to assess the risks from orbital debris. We take a little bit of that weight off with our analysis and help them focus on their mission. A few weeks ago, we worked with NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Clouds, Oceanic Ecosystem mission, or PACE. It is a terrestrial research satellite that needed particle impact analysis to ensure that it adequately protects the components necessary for maneuvers to re-enter the atmosphere. We help reinforce the design to make it more secure. In the same way, I am collaborating with the Roman Space Telescope mission, identifying possible vulnerabilities of the telescope to meteorites in deep space and eliminate these vulnerabilities.

For the Spanish version of this story please visit:

By Janiel Hernández
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center