Meeting a Space Scientist & a Football Player both in one.
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
One from IMARC 2019, Mumbai, India
While there’s no substitute for walking the show floor, organising the best of the events, addressing the audience, attending the keynotes and sessions, participating in the Birds of a Feather groups and spontaneous discussions that happen throughout the year under the banner of IEEE, all this interaction—both live and online—debunks the urban myth of the classic, socially introverted geek in me and here is yet another one of those for 2019, once again a feather from the same flock.
From left to right: Dr.Goutam Chattopadhyay, Senior Research Scientist, NASA JPL; Ms. Aisha Nazia, & Dr. Nacer Chahat, Payload System Engineering Lead - SWOT Mission, NASA JPL
Look who I met on the 14th of December 2019, Dr. Nacer E Chahat, a “could” have been professional footballer, BUT what’s beyond that is a space engineer. An all-rounder will be too much a cliche to tag him to, but definitely is one of the choices of a word one would pick to describe him the quickest.
I do not often come across individuals whose mindset matches mine and run on the same adrenaline levels as me. This one was beyond what one would imagine a hardware engineer could be. A few years back, I had met someone who was, is and will always be that IEEE Volunteer I would look upto for all reasons. And now, I get to meet one of his finest Mentee, Nacer - someone I am writing on today, my second pick from NASA to scribble about, and definitely one more to my list of some of the finest gentlemen I know in person.
Dr. Nacer E Chahat is a prodigy when it comes to his works on Antennas. He holds an M.Sc in Electrical Engineering and Radio Communications and completed his Ph.D. in Signal Processing and Telecommunication from the University of Rennes 1, France.
Dr. Chahat has varied and exciting interests beyond his professional life. With a dream to become a professional footballer, he played football at a very early age and also gained the black belt in Judo. Since we had a common interest in football, there wasn’t any ice to break and we quickly got into the groove of exploring each other’s professional interests. The following is a compilation of excerpts from the conversation we had over a span of 14 hours at IIT Bombay amidst IEEE IMaRC 2019 between all the preps and our session that went well for the good covering his professional achievements, hobbies as well as his road to NASA. We had multiple topics to explore, from soccer, the love for CR7, IEEE, all the whys we ask about life, food, science, hardware, space to everything else in and around us.
Me: So I shall begin with the basics, How do you feel working for the American space superpower, NASA in spite of not being a native and being a French-Algerian?
Nacer: I was born in Angers, France. During my childhood, I seriously had no clue that I’ll become a scientist, or furthermore, an aerospace engineer. I was into professional football and my dream was to someday play at the highest level. But, quickly, reality struck me. So I felt or desired to become a software engineer. While pursuing my Master’s, I had a professor who was working on Antennas, his passion and dedication to research caught my attention. Then, there was no point of return like a black hole. I got hooked onto it and started exploring opportunities. And now I am here, at the world’s largest space organisation.
Dr. Nacer Chahat holding the Europa Lander antenna prototype
Me: You said you wanted to be a software engineer. And now you are working in the field of Antennas, which is 80% hardware. How did this turn out?
Nacer: Like I said before, I was a confused child with lots of professional options in front of me, each of which sounded attractive. However, growing up in France as a minority, the few role models I had were soccer players such as Zinedine Zidane, who is also a French-Algerian. It makes it difficult to project yourself, as a kid, as anything different than your role models. After understanding I could have a bigger impact as an engineer rather than a professional soccer player, I felt that electrical engineering could be a field where I can contribute a lot. I was intrigued by software and loved programming. But at the university, after being exposed to exemplary work on Antenna, I started to learn more about it. I found a strong passion for hardware. It took a lot of perseverance and hard work before I was able to contribute.
Me: Kudos for keeping up with challenges and getting past them. I would love to know what kept you driven to be at NASA and work in this particular field.
Nacer: Basically, problems. I love problems, not the question part of it but the solution. Because of the complexity of problems, we tend to find out new paradigms, we think of developing new technology and hence the road ahead (I was then appalled to know another person who is inquisitive to talk and develop modern technologies) This takes me back to the time I spent at the Graduate School of Engineering, Chiba University. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, getting to know Japanese culture, befriending intellectuals from across the globe, etc. There was a friend of mine who challenged me over a project. He told me that it won’t work. I was thrilled to prove him otherwise. So I gathered as much information about how it could fail, worked on it and completed the project successfully. So yeah, working on technological solutions for problems keeps me motivated. In Japan, I learned critical lessons: hard work and perseverance. Everyone in the lab was working long hours, all motivated, and hardworking. They have a word to define this attitude “Gambatte”, which means “keep working hard”. This is where I learned to work hard until I would solve my problems and this attitude followed me for the rest of my career. I try to identify challenging problems and take on the challenges.
Me: What are the different projects you have worked on, in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory?
Nacer: I was blessed to work on many missions for which I delivered flight hardware such as Europa Lander, M2020, Mars Helicopter, SWOT, Psyche, MarCO, Raincube, LunaH-Map, Lunar IceCube, NeaScout, Lunar Flashlight, NiSar. Ohh, there is BioSentinel and CUSP too. I am sorry I am not able to recall all of them but each of them has helped us to discover better ways to shape space programmes as well as the future. Most of our missions are science-driven with important questions to answer to better understand Earth and our Universe. I have to admit, among all of them, I am extremely passionate about Europa Lander, which is, by far, one of the most challenging engineering accomplishments. I hope to see it happen someday.
Me: That itself is a huge number, I am the one who has lost count now. I wish to know what according to you are your biggest contributions to NASA or space science in general?
Nacer: Contributions come in various ways in a place like JPL: business, management, admin support, engineering, etc. Everyone contributes in their own ways for the best of space exploration. Every contribution is important and it is of uppermost importance not to forget. If I had to choose among my personal contributions, I would certainly mention my work on deployable CubeSat antennas which enabled two missions: (1) Raincube, the first active radar in a CubeSat and (2) MarCO, the first Deep Space CubeSats. I wrote a technical book, currently in press to be published by Wiley. I am particularly excited since one of my priorities is to share knowledge. I hope this will help undergrad, graduates, PhD students, and engineers to learn about how we developed these technologies for flight missions.
Most recently I had the chance to be part of a team responsible to design a lander aiming to land on the surface of Europa, an icy moon of Europa. This team was composed of the best engineers JPL has to offer. We all worked together to make this mission possible. If we add a relay orbiter, the cost becomes prohibitive and on the other hand direct-to-Earth (DTE) communications with existing technologies is problematic. This is because the volume and the mass of the required large antenna that seats on the lander become an obstacle due to historical low efficiency of existing designs. And then there is the issue of survival in the intense radiation environment and cryogenic temperatures of Europa. We developed a new antenna enabling the Europa lander mission. It demonstrates unprecedented efficiency (>80% at both uplink and downlink frequency bands) and is also capable of handling much higher input power. This results in a significant increase in data rate within an acceptable volume and size for the lander carried antenna. There is still a long way to go and much more to be contributed. Hoping for the best in the coming years.
One important thing to mention: none of these achievements would have been possible alone. I am blessed to work with very talented mechanical engineers and technicians.
Europa Lander High Gain Antenna enabling Direct-to-Earth communication from Europa.
MarCO CubeSat with fully deployed antenna
Me: Sounds awesome. Hope you get to work on similar lines and scale higher summits in the field of space science. Before I end this conversation and catch some footy action with you, I want to know what other hobbies are you indulged in? I have heard there is huge repertoire just like the way with Antennas.
Nacer: (Laughingly) There ain’t any repertoire as such. I play soccer once a day, either with a group of friends or on my own. I also occasionally coach kids who strive to get better. I also try occasionally to go back to my first love: Judo. This sport taught me a lot about life. I also enjoy scuba diving, mountain hiking, canyoneering, etc. when my work permits me free time. Also, I fly Cessna 152. (Hearing Cessna reminded me of Commercial Pilot License on my to-do list)
A sneak peak from a football match
I dedicate a large amount of time to my research but I also invest my personal time to give back to the community by giving talks either in local schools and universities, and travel to give talks in internal conferences such as this one (IMARC). I have noticed most well-known Professors in our field tend to only go to flagship conferences in the US or Europe. So I personally enjoy going to Asia, South America, and Africa. There are lots of smart and very motivated students there and I am happy to meet them and share my knowledge with them. I am lucky to work in an institution that allows me to do that. My message is always the same: “work hard and you will accomplish your dreams”.
It is inspiring to see people sharing similar interests, having achieved so much in life, yet humble and raring to prod further! Until the next time we meet, this photo of ours will be the start to a great friendship between two enduring individuals whose passion for work and life is equally adventurous yet distant apart, dunno how many miles away.
Here are some references to his works:
- Raincube and MarCO:
- Research interview with Hackaday:
- MarCO success during Insight landing: