The women on a mission to reduce space debris

Be an example

As a mentor to new graduate students in aerospace, Roncalli believes she should lead by example. “I think it is a great mission to inspire others by showing that women also work in this discipline. When I started my master’s, I thought my career would follow a straight line: you study, you do an internship and then you start working for a company. Now that I’m a mentor, I help new students and try to inspire and show them what they can do as an aerospace engineer. I want to show a different story, not the average story of graduating and then going to work for a company, but giving an example of someone who does it differently. Become a mentor, start your own business and consider all the options you have.

These are some of the reasons Roncalli was awarded the 2022 IAWA Scholarship. This scholarship from the International Aviation Women’s Association is awarded each year to a number of female aviation and aerospace students from a select number of universities, including TU Delft. With the aim: to stimulate female leadership in the aviation and aerospace industry. Roncalli’s commitment to both her studies and her entrepreneurship aligns well with IAWA’s mission to connect, inspire and lead.

The pollution

Roncalli, Cattani and Leon Dasi got to know each other at TU Delft’s Faculty of Aeronautics and Space Technology, where they did their masters in aerospace. They discovered that all three of them had a passion for finding a solution to the problem of space debris: they teamed up with three other students and founded the startup Ecosmic.

With so much debris floating around the Earth and more and more satellites being launched into space, the navigation of spacecraft around our planet has become one of the most important problems of our time. The growing amount of debris increases the risk of a collision between a spacecraft and a piece of space junk, and such a collision would create new pieces of space junk, increasing the likelihood of subsequent collisions – a potential chain reaction known as the ‘Kessler syndrome’. The syndrome describes how space research and commercial applications of space around the Earth eventually become impossible because of this vicious circle. “The space debris orbits the Earth at very high speeds and is therefore not only dangerous for satellites, but also for example the International Space Station (ISS) and the astronauts working there,” says Roncalli. “Satellites can be damaged or even destroyed by a collision with space debris.”

Gaia Roncalli (photo: Marcel Krijger)

From initial task to product

Based on an algorithm Leon Dasi developed for his master’s thesis, the Ecosmic team is now designing software that can improve collision avoidance, something that could save space agencies a lot of time and money. First they ran their software from Earth. This meant they had to wait for information to be sent to and from satellites, a process that was not automatic. The team is trying to equip the second version of the Ecosmic concept, which they are still working on, with a ‘plug-and-play’ system that can be installed in the satellites themselves. Processing information on board the satellite makes it possible to very precisely calculate the orbits of pieces of space debris and the risk of a collision, making the process automated and much faster.

Although calculating the risk of collisions in space and devising ways to avoid such collisions is not new, Leon Dasi says her algorithm and software design include innovations that take into account aspects that have not been considered before. “One of the most important innovations is that the software can model the actual shape of a satellite, whereas previously it was assumed that a satellite is more or less round,” says Leon Dasi, who is named the Faculty’s best student. Aeronautics in 2022. and graduated in Aerospace Research.

Support for a startup

Establishing a start-up and bringing a product to market is a learning process and requires a lot of work. “None of us have a business background, so there was a big knowledge gap that we had to catch up on,” says Cattani, who graduated in September and now works at the European Space Agency (ESA) on the Clean Space Initiative, a program which focuses on the problem of space debris. “We are young and just started our careers, so we don’t have much experience yet. But we are working on it.”

As part of the Aerospace Innovation Hub community, the Ecosmic team has received support from a mentor and by establishing contacts with other aerospace startups at TU Delft. “The fact that we were able to talk to more experienced entrepreneurs is very helpful, not only to learn more about fundraising, but also about getting the product to market, writing a business plan – all the things we still had to learn with our technical background. And the start voucher from the Aerospace Innovation Hub was also very important to get the project off the ground,” says Roncalli.

There will be other women in the industry and it will only increase. Find other women who support you in the sector and support each other.

Gaia Roncalli

With an eye to the future

While their startup is still in its infancy, the Ecosmic team hopes to be able to bring a minimum viable product – the software application – to market by spring 2023. They are currently working on marketing the product and finding partners and potential customers for the first part of the product. At the same time, they are working on R&D for the second part. “I want to launch a useful product,” says Leon Dasi. “We see that the space sector is developing at a rapid pace, and we know that more technologies are needed in the coming years to prevent a large amount of space debris from accumulating. We really hope that the technologies and ideas we develop will contribute to this.”

Only women

As a three-woman aviation management team, Roncalli, Leon Dasi and Cattani recognize they are in a unique position. Although the Ecosmic founders see the number of women in their field increasing, obstacles remain and there is definitely room for improvement. At a recent event where Roncalli was showcasing her product, she noticed she was the only woman on stage. “Sometimes the examples we know of men are not the way I would do it. I want to do things differently, but we don’t have many women to look up to,” she says. Despite these kinds of experiences has she always felt that inclusivity was taken seriously at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. “Although there is not yet a good balance, I think it is going in the right direction. I always feel supported by professors and fellow students, and that has been a good experience in that respect.”

Leon Dasi agrees. She says that she has always been stimulated and, as a woman, has not encountered any major problems during her studies in the Netherlands. Now working on her PhD at the Observatoire de Paris, she says the majority of people in space and astrophysics are men. “But among the younger generation of PhD students, we are starting to see more and more women and a more balanced distribution, so that gives hope for the future.”

Benedetta Cattani, Gaia Roncalli and Mireia Leon Dasi (photo: Marcel Krijger)

Women support women

The women of Ecosmic continue to inspire because they are an example for other women entering space travel. As advice to the next generation, the team said hard work and supporting each other is important. It may not always be easy, but Leon Dasi said confidence can help: “As a woman in space travel, sometimes you have to prove that what you’re doing is worth doing, while men get most of the attention. I would say to other women: believe in yourself and persevere, because if what you do is right, it will eventually be seen as right.” Roncalli adds that you must remember that you are not alone. “There will be other women in the industry, and that will only increase. Find other women who support you in the sector and support each other.”

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