New School Year! And Space Robots!

by Michael Mullaney on August 26, 2013

Today marks the first day of the new school year here at Rensselaer! We at The Approach would like to take this opportunity to welcome our first-year students, welcome back our returning students, and applaud our ever-outstanding faculty and staff! Here’s to another great year!

What better way to mark the occasion than with some good news? The preeminent science journal Nature recently featured a Q&A with our very own Riccardo Bevilacqua, pictured above in his lab. A distinguished assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering here at Rensselaer, Riccardo spends his time and energy dreaming up and designing fascinating new ways to control spacecraft and satellites. He navigates this bold trek with funding from the NASA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, DARPA, and the Office of Naval Research. (Read about some of those funding awards here and here.)

Nature asked Riccardo about his ONR grant, and more generally about his research, his career so far, and his path from bella Italia to Troy, NY. A few questions are excerpted below. See the full interview here, and be sure to check our own 3° interview with Riccardo here.

Nature: How did you first pursue your interest in spacecraft?

Riccardo: I completed a five-year laurea, essentially a master’s programme, in aerospace engineering at the University of Rome in 2002. My thesis explored ways of controlling the orientation of spacecraft. I worked for a year in Spain developing software for satellites, and realized that I wanted to focus on research. I went back to Rome for a PhD, and my research adventure led me to the United States.

Describe your job search.

From the start of my postdoc I applied for at least 20 jobs, but I only got my first interview nine months before the end of the postdoc. All of a sudden, it was the right time in the job market. I had five interviews in a month.

You ended up at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). How has that been?

After spending so much time in California, I didn’t expect to end up in Troy, New York. But I also didn’t expect the RPI to be so aggressive and supportive in terms of start-up funds, which was crucial for starting my lab, getting students and making important connections.

Have the cuts to US federal spending affected your research goals?

I’m expecting cuts to existing grants but don’t know by how much. I have four graduate students and would love to recruit more, but with the funding situation, I’m not sure how quickly I can grow my lab. Still, my research is attractive partly because we design small, cheap spacecraft that can do science at a reduced cost.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. One undergraduate showed me his origami designs and wondered how to apply them to my research. After thinking about it, I realized we could use those folding strategies to develop a sail to steer our spacecraft.