Internships with Impact: Alex Philpott, Satellite Navigations Team Intern

Alex, an aerospace engineering major at the University of Michigan, knew that DigitalGlobe does amazing stuff—with satellites, imagery and analytics. But he didn’t realize until his interview with the Satellite Navigation Systems team that even interns—from the get-go—get to do amazing things.

In week two of his internship, when he “still needed instructions on how to get back to his desk,” Alex was asked to plot a maneuver to prevent a collision between one of our satellites and a Chinese cubesat. This is a critical, 24/7 role of the Navigation team: assessing and tracking reports of objects orbiting space—both satellites and debris—that could be on a collision path with a DigitalGlobe asset, and when needed, plotting a preventive action.

The first step for the Nav team was to reach out to U.S. military and Chinese counterparts to discuss the situation. Alex joined the communication with the Chinese. They learned that the cubesat had no propulsion, and confirmed it was up to DigitalGlobe to get out of the way. Next step, Alex did the math with assistance from colleagues and devised a plan, which was reviewed, approved and put into action. “Not many summer interns get to say they created collision-avoidance maneuvers for satellites that were actually put into play,” he says.

Alex’s mentor, Doug Engelhardt, Manager of Satellite Navigation Systems, provided him with plenty of challenges for the three months of his internship, and all of them were “completed more thoroughly than the original assignment.” These included becoming proficient on satellite orbit maneuvers and collision avoidance, put into action with not just the Chinese cubesat, but other potentially risky situations with space debris. Alex monitored updates to these situations nights and weekends when necessary, just as do regular members of the Nav team, Doug says, and he also used his newly acquired skills to work to command orbital maneuvers to adjust our orbits for optimal image collection.

His work made a difference. “Alex’s detailed and thorough analyses of potential satellite collisions have significantly contributed to our team’s effort of avoiding collisions with space objects while at the same time preserving our fuel.”

Alex’s big project was to identify additional metrics to collect that would enhance monitoring of satellite positioning, write a computer program, and streamline the way that information was displayed on the Nav team dashboard. To get that done, he taught himself three new computer languages (Perl, Ruby and HTML) and then programmed the graphical display that shows the status of real-time navigation systems.

His metric-gathering program and graphical dashboard is now in “shadow ops,” which means it is being verified for operational use. “Even in this test mode,” Doug says, “it has already alerted navigation engineers of current issues earlier than our current method of manually checking.”

Alex says his summer has been incredible, start to finish. The internship—the real-world experience, the opportunity to work with and learn from a great team, to hear stories from people who have been doing this work for decades—has been “phenomenal.”