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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Lucy Deputy Project Systems Engineer Mike Sekerak discusses the first space mission to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroid swarms.

NASA’s Lucy Mission will probe into our solar system’s distant past during a 12-year mission to eight never-before-seen asteroids. The Trojan asteroids circle the Sun in two swarms, with one group leading ahead of Jupiter in its path and the other trailing behind it. Planned for launch October 16, Lucy is the 13th mission in NASA’s Discovery Program.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • Lucy science instruments and objectives
  • Unique aspects of the Lucy mission
  • Engineering challenges of a high-power solar propulsion mission to multiple targets


Related Resources


Lucy Mission Resources

NASA Lucy Mission’s Message to the Future

From Soldier to Scientist, Mike Sekerak Brings Leadership Skills to Goddard

APPEL Courses:

Team Leadership (APPEL-vTL)

Tactical Skills for Creating High Performance Teams (APPEL-vCHPT)

Space Launch and Transportation System (APPEL-vSLTS)

Science Mission & Systems: Design & Operations (APPEL-vSMSDO)


Michael Sekerak Credit: NASA

Michael Sekerak
Credit: NASA

Michael Sekerak is a Mission Systems Engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and has been the Deputy Project Systems Engineer for the Lucy Mission since 2017. Sekerak is the Project Systems Engineer for the recently selected DAVINCI mission to Venus. He specializes in solar electric propulsion and has worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Air Force Research Laboratory, and the National Security Space Institute. Sekerak is a former Armored Cavalry Officer in the Army completing a combat tour in Iraq and is currently an Officer in the Air Force Reserves. He received a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, a master’s in aeronautics from California Institute of Technology, and a master’s in nuclear engineering and doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan researching Hall Effect Thrusters.


Mike Sekerak: It’s about the discoveries that are totally unexpected.

As kind of a science fiction romantic, I always love reading about stories of sending spacecraft all over the solar system — out and back and out and back. And this will be the first spacecraft that actually does that in real life, which is exciting.

We will eventually take the crown from Juno for being the furthest solar-powered mission that’s ever been flown.

Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome back to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

NASA’s Lucy Mission — the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids — is scheduled to launch this month, with the first opportunity coming the morning of October 16.

We’re in conversation with Mike Sekerak, the Deputy Project Systems Engineer for the Lucy Mission. Mike, thanks for joining us.


Sekerak: Oh, Deana, a pleasure to be here.

Host: Let’s start out talking Lucy science and then dig into the engineering achievements for the mission. Could you begin with a general overview of the mission?

Sekerak: Yeah. Lucy’s going to be on this extraordinarily exciting journey throughout the solar system over the next approximately 12 years after we launch here in October. Over that time, we’re going to be visiting eight different asteroids with just our single spacecraft. We launch really shortly, and we do one Earth gravity assist about a year later. And about two years after that another Earth gravity assist. And then in 2025 is when we encounter the Donaldjohanson Main Belt asteroid. And then from 2027 through ’28, we then explore four of the L4 Trojan swarm asteroids that are resonant with Jupiter. And then 2033, we come back after another Earth gravity assist, we visit the binary asteroid in the L5 swarm. So we’ll be crisscrossing the solar system over approximately 12-year mission, going inner solar system and outer solar system to get this unprecedented science.

Host: What are the science objectives of Lucy?

Sekerak: Well, the Trojan asteroids are the remnants of the giant planet formation. And what we want to understand with Lucy is we want to help understand how the solar system formed. And the best way to help understand those solar system formation processes, both for our solar system, as well as exoplanets, is to look at those leftover building blocks. The way I like to describe it to people is when you’re looking at a house, a beautiful structure house with the amazing architecture, you don’t necessarily know what went into building that house. What really helps you understand how the house was actually built is during the construction phase, looking at those leftover scraps, the pieces of wood or brick or glass that are outside in the big dumpster that eventually gets hauled off before the house is completed. And that’s what we want to understand for how the solar system formed.

We want to find those little bits of leftover original building blocks. Explore those, so we understand how the solar system formed.

There’s these things called Lagrange points, which are gravitational residences between two large bodies and the sun and Jupiter are pretty large bodies. And so there’s a L4 of the Lagrange point and L5 of the Lagrange point. That’s a little bit ahead of Jupiter’s orbit and a little bit behind. And in those deep gravity wells, some of those original building blocks for the solar system have been trapped for four billion years. Essentially those pieces of wood, brick and glass, when the solar system was first built are essentially stuck there. Now we don’t know what they’re made out of. That’s just my analogy, but we’re going to go look at those building blocks to help us understand solar system formation. Scientists have different models for how it formed. And we need to look at those leftover remnants to confirm those models.

Host: Could you tell us about the science instruments for the Lucy mission?

Sekerak: Absolutely. So we have four instruments onboard the Lucy spacecraft. They’re all on the instrument pointing platform, and this is an articulated platform on a two-axis gimbal that’s attached to the top of the spacecraft. And this is the one that helps point towards the asteroids and take all this science that will really help our understanding of the solar system formation. Those instruments are — First one is the L’Ralph instrument, and that will take both color images as well as near infrared images that will really give us understanding of the composition of the asteroids. Again, we really want to know what they’re made of to help understand the solar system formation.

Another one of the instruments is the L’LORRI instrument and that was an acronym for the Lucy Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. That one’s been provided by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and that one has two purposes. It’ll provide very high-resolution images of the asteroid surfaces, but also on approach to the asteroids, it’ll do what’s called optical navigation. Whereas the asteroids are still small blips in our imager, it’ll help us fine tune that trajectory, so we fly by at just the right distance.

Another instrument is L’TES, which is a thermal emission spectrometer that’s been provided by Arizona State and that’ll measure the temperature of the asteroid both on the day and night side. And that will allow us to understand the thermal inertia or how the asteroid cools, which again, will help a lot with understanding what it’s made out of. And we also have the terminal tracking cameras, and those are panchromatic. So, they’re black and white picture of the asteroids. And those cameras also have a dual purpose as well. The science side of it, they’ll be taking images of the asteroids that will help provide shape models. So, we’ll know the shape of the asteroids. But also, they will be doing the terminal tracking, which is their primary function.

The real challenge is we have to make sure that we know where the asteroid is as we’re flying by to keep those instruments pointed at it. So, we’ve had to develop a very complex algorithm that we’ve had to test extensively on the spacecraft itself, has the smarts to be able to identify what the asteroid is and point the instruments at it to get these images. And the terminal tracking cameras are key to that. And then the last science thing that we’ll be doing is making mass measurements with our antenna that measures how the spacecraft’s trajectory has been perturbed by the asteroids.

These are small asteroids, 20 kilometers, the smallest approximately, to over 100 kilometers for the largest ones. And they’re only going to perturb our trajectory just a little, little bit, but that small perturbation will allow us to calculate the masses of the asteroid and using the Doppler shift from our X-band telecommunication system, we’ll be able to back calculate what the mass is. So you can see that we’re going to be getting a lot of science during each of these flybys with this instrument suite.

Host: What’s unique about Lucy?

Sekerak: There are so many unique aspects of Lucy, but first and foremost, is that we’ll be the first ones to go to the Trojan asteroids. Scientists have been wanting to visit them for a long time, and we’ll be the first mission to go there. We have a very unique opportunity to help constrain how that planet formation process worked and to understand those evolution models of systems. And because we’re sampling, we’re going to fly by eight different total asteroids, seven of those Trojan asteroids, and one Main Belt asteroid. We will actually sample that diversity. And we’ll be going all the way out to the outer solar system. Then all the way back in and all the way out again, literally crisscrossing the solar system.

From an engineering standpoint, the design challenges that went into doing that is something that I’ve been captivated by ever since I joined Lucy. As kind of a science fiction romantic, I always love reading about stories of sending spacecraft all over the solar system — out and back and out and back. And this will be the first spacecraft that actually does that in real life, which is exciting.

Host: Let’s talk more about that engineering perspective. What does it take to visit so many targets across the solar system?

Sekerak: Well, the starting point for that is the flight dynamics planning that we’ve had to do on Lucy. We have an amazing team, led by NASA Goddard with strong partners in KinetX and Lockheed Martin that have been working on this trajectory design ever since we were selected in early 2017. And for even years before that, and they’ll continue refining the trajectory even going forward. They have run thousands and thousands and thousands of Monte Carlo simulations for a trajectory, looking in every possible little perturbation from different masses of the asteroid, solar radiation pressure, all these different little things to be able to essentially thread the needle to fly by all these different targets.

We have three Earth gravity assists. We have five Deep Space maneuvers. We have over 30 trajectory correction maneuvers, which are the small tweaking of our trajectory and ensure we do the flybys properly. So that takes a lot of planning, a lot of computation time and computers to make sure we get that right.

Host: We talked about what makes Lucy unique. What are some of the other firsts with this mission?

Sekerak: Yeah, so there’s a lot of really exciting firsts with the mission. But, of course, you got to hit the most important one as that will be the first mission to the Trojan asteroids, as I said already, which is the whole main point for why we were selected. But looking at some of the other really unique things that we’ll be doing, we’ll be visiting the most objects of any mission with our seven Trojans, one Main Belt asteroid. We’ll be the first spacecraft to actually fly out to Jupiter distance and then return near the vicinity of Earth. And we will do an Earth gravity assist when we come back. But still the first spacecraft to go to the outer solar system and then come back in, which is a very big distance.

And also, one of the things that I’m most excited about is that we will eventually take the crown from Juno for being the furthest solar-powered mission that’s ever been flown, when we’ll be going all the way out to 5.7 AU on solar power. So that’s actually past Jupiter’s distance where the Sun’s only about 3 percent as bright as it is in Earth orbit. And we’re not just going out there and sitting idle. That’s where we’ll be doing some of our primary science is out that far, which is why we’ve had to put such large solar arrays on the Lucy spacecraft.

Host: Sounds like a very complex and vigorous mission.

Sekerak: Oh, definitely.

Host: Could you tell us more about some of those complexities, and what it is that makes this a challenging mission?

Sekerak: It has definitely posed some very fun, technical challenges that the team has had to work through. First, let’s go back to those solar arrays that I was initially talking about, where you’re flying these UltraFlex solar arrays that are developed by Northrup Grumman. Now they’ve used them on their Cygnus resupply vehicle, low-Earth orbit to the space station. And then they’ve used them on small versions of InSight and Phoenix that landed on Mars. But what we’re flying is almost twice as big as anything that they’ve ever flown before. And we’ll be taking it out into Deep Space, and we’ll bring it also back and close to Earth as well during Earth gravity assist. And so, there’s been a lot of challenges and really taking that really key technology and making it ready for high power, Deep Space applications. That’s going to open up tremendous opportunities for missions in the future, like a high-power solar propulsion mission, for example, using these arrays on future missions. So that’s been a big challenge.

As I said, with our trajectory, we go all the way out to 5.7 AU, but then we come back in to 0.83 AU, as we’re again doing this crisscrossing the solar system type of trajectory. When you’re at 0.83 AU, that’s well inside Earth’s orbit, things are pretty hot. So we have some pretty big thermal extremes going that close and that far from the Sun. That’s created some unique testing challenges and thermal requirements on our spacecraft that we’ve had to test through a lot of modeling, small scale testing, as well as our system level thermal vac testing. So that’s been one big and very fun challenge to work through that will help out many future missions.

Another really unique and exciting part of it is during those encounters with the asteroids, as we’re doing our flybys, we have very, very intensive spacecraft operations as we’re doing those flybys of the asteroids, which we only get one shot at. If something doesn’t go right, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I missed that. Go back.’ You have to continue flying on through, which means you need to have a fault protection that can deal with any faults and still continue taking the primary science. We fly by these asteroids anywhere from 5.8 to almost nine kilometers per second. That’s somewhere between 13,000 to 20,000 miles per hour. And with the round trip, light time, everything has to be done autonomously. We can’t have a human in the loop, because they’re too far away.

So, during these critical times, when we’re flying by the asteroids, the spacecraft has to be rotating. And the instrument pointing platform, which contains our primary instruments, has to be pointing at the asteroids as the spacecraft is moving, acquiring all this data through a pre-described sequence and recording it continuously. It’s a very intense operation and execution, which means the whole planning and ground testing portion of it has been a very fun challenge for the entire team to come together and solve. How do we replicate these encounters in the ground? How do we test the system on the ground to make sure that we can do this?

We can’t put a big asteroid in front of the spacecraft and simulate it. Heck, our solar arrays are so big, we can’t even deploy both of them at the same time on the ground. And the instrument pointing platform where the instruments are mounted can’t be moving through the full range of motion on the spacecraft due to gravity. So we’ve had to come up with a very, very complex testing plan to make sure that we’ve simulated these flybys and that we know that we’ll get this critical science.

Host: That is so fascinating. What have you and the team learned as you’ve prepared for Lucy with all of these challenges that you’re facing and these things that are so different than what’s been done before?

Sekerak: So, there’s been so many really exciting and fun things that we’ve learned along the way about planning a science exploration mission like this. We’re going to visit bodies that have never been visited before, which means we don’t know what they look like. There’s some Hubble Space Telescope observations. There’s ground observations. There’s occultation as. they pass in front of stars. So we have a general idea for the size and grossly what the shapes are, but the fine, fine details of the asteroids, we don’t know anything about them, which is why we’re doing the mission.

So, planning the system to take images and measurements of something that we don’t know what they look like, a priori has been quite the challenge. And that’s pretty common for an asteroid mission, but a lot of the previous asteroid missions, they go and they rendezvous with a target. They orbit the target. They get a chance to characterize and map the target, like OSIRIS-Rex at Bennu. But we’re flying by with one chance each. And so that has been a challenge for how do you possibly constrain what you need to test? So looking at different asteroids and missions and learning how to best come up with constraints, has been one thing that we’ve really worked through.

But in general, it’s important that you look at all your testing and your development and look at what’s unique for your mission? What’s right for your mission? What’s right for Lucy? Just because other projects may have done things a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for Lucy. Using those heritage approaches is definitely sound as a starting point, but you need to make sure you stop and ask yourself, ‘What’s unique about your mission?’ And so that’s been something that we’ve had to make sure that we do on Lucy.

Another example of that is yes, we are a Deep Space mission that launches directly onto a heliocentric trajectory. And with that mentality, you typically don’t think about a lot of the other requirements that you would levy on a low-Earth orbit spacecraft, like electrostatic discharge and aero-torquing, aero-torque and aero-thermal heating. But because we come back and do these Earth gravity assists, we have had to design that in, which is a bit unusual for a Deep Space mission. So thinking about the uniqueness of your mission is something that we’ve had to make sure we’ve embraced.

Host: And that’s good insight to share. And I’m wondering, do you have other experiences with the Lucy mission that might be helpful to NASA systems engineers, folks across the agency?

Sekerak: Yes. So, some things that would definitely help out from a team and leadership standpoint is capitalizing on the resources that you have available. Thankfully for Lucy, we’ve pulled together a very experienced team with Lockheed Martin, KinetX, Southwest Research Institute, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and Arizona State, and really capitalizing on the unique talents and experiences that each of those teams bring to the table. And when you have a lot of different institutions working together, they can have different institutional cultures. And it’s really important that you make sure you embrace each of the institution’s cultures, their processes, and realize that’s what’s helped make them successful in their previous areas before. And don’t necessarily force yours onto the other team members. So really capitalizing on the diversity and experiences of your team to help with the unique aspects of the missions is something I would definitely embrace on future missions as well.

Host: What about from a technical standpoint? Are there some lessons learned or some experiences that you and the team have had that you think might be helpful for others to know more about?

Sekerak: Yeah, so definitely from a testing standpoint is making sure that when you do have some of those unique requirements that you lay them out beforehand and you really tackle those right up front. For example, with the large solar arrays and large thermal extremes, making sure we get those requirements laid out and do some of the upfront testing. Like we had to do with some qualification samples, because we knew we were taking them to environment that they’d never been in before, we did some of that upfront testing. And we definitely learned some things with that upfront testing and we had to modify the design. So making sure that for a lot of those very unique aspects of your missions, that you get that hardware tested upfront. So you can learn those lessons as quickly as possible, because when you identify problems early, you have more options and less painful options to come to a resolution.

Host: So, as you’re working with this team, how important is leadership to make this mission successful?

Sekerak: I think the leadership of the team has been absolutely critical from the science leadership, from Hal Levison, the PI and others, from the project management leadership of Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, and the engineering leadership. That’s been both on the NASA Goddard and the Lockheed and our other partners’ side. Because we are a distributed diverse team even before the pandemic, and then of course, with the pandemic having to work remotely, making sure that you are checking in with your people to see how they’re doing both professionally as well as personally. And ensuring that you’re all driving to a common goal and you don’t diverge, has required a lot of strong leadership, especially as we’ve had to work remotely in this current environment.

So, we have teams spread across the country even before and during the pandemic and making sure that we all come together both literally and figuratively to achieve this common goal, has presented challenges across the board, but we have definitely met those challenges and overcome them.

Host: And you have a history of meeting challenges and overcoming them largely because of your background. Could you share a little bit about your background?

Sekerak: Yeah. I probably have a little more unusual of a background for the typical engineer. I was an armored Calvary officer in the Army where I did a 15-month combat tour in Iraq, leading tank platoon leaders, scout platoon leader, and other Calvary units in urban combat operations in Southwest Baghdad. And with that experience, there’s definitely a perspective that you get on what motivates people, how to make sure you get a team, coalesce together on a common goal and mission, how to get buy-in from your really experienced team members to put together and do a plan that everybody’s a stakeholder in and then make a decision and then move out smartly.

But people are people, no matter what venue you’re in, whether you’re a soldier, you’re an engineer, you’re a doctor, you’re in business. Leading people is still about the people. What motivates them, taking care of them, giving them goals, helping make them successful. And definitely as a young armor officer during that time, definitely helped develop those skills in a unique environment.

Host: With the Lucy launch coming up so soon, what are your thoughts? What are you feeling at this point?

Sekerak: Oh, I have to say it is really excitement is really what I’m feeling right now. It’s a culmination of years of hard work. We were selected in January of 2017. And as soon as we were selected, I went to my management and said, ‘I want to get on this mission.’ And so I’ve been on it since shortly after selection. So I’ve been on it for almost four and a half years now, working with this extraordinarily talented group of people. And so I have a lot of excitement in the culmination of the years of my hard work, but there’s years of work that went into it before selection as well. And we can’t forget about the years that all these projects take in formulation. But the launch itself, isn’t really a culmination. It’s really just the beginning. And the beginning of this exciting journey.

We will be handing it off to an operations team that’ll be flying the spacecraft for 12 or possibly more years. It is the excitement to watch the images that’ll be streaming back of these asteroids and seeing them on the different news sites, watching the public get excited about it. That’s what I’m really anticipating is a lot of excitement. But one thing I just keep thinking that Lucy is a robotic mission, but it really is a human endeavor. And all of this is made possible by such a large team with a wide range of expertise from all over the country and even all over the world and seeing their hard work pay off is very satisfying.

Host: What are your expectations, perhaps even your hopes and your dreams for the Lucy mission?

Sekerak: Well, of course, it’s for a successful launch here shortly, which, of course, everybody wants. But to see the rocket lift off and the spacecraft separate and deploy those solar arrays and just know that the spacecraft is functioning well and on her way for the journey. And of course, successful encounters. We’ve been planning this for years and they’ve got years more of planning and preparation for these asteroid encounters, but just cannot wait to see those images streaming back. But in terms of the hopes and the dreams, it’s about the discoveries that are totally unexpected.

You think back to the New Horizons and Pluto, where they sent back images of Pluto that were totally unprecedented, not what the scientists were expecting. And I’m hoping that and excited for those unexpected discoveries from the Trojan asteroid, for them to come back and to hear the scientist say, ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that.’ Those are something that I think we learn so much more about. And, of course, I’m definitely still holding out hope that our mission doesn’t end in 2033 with the Patroclus-Menoetius binary encounter in the L5 swarm. The spacecraft should be operating fine. There should still be plenty of propellant on board. And we don’t have any targets picked out after that, because they weren’t our primary mission.

But based on the science team’s analysis, our spacecraft should be orbiting the Sun for a couple million years until potentially it would run into an asteroid at some probability way, way out in the future. So there is nothing from physics or engineering that says the mission has to end at 2033. So I’m hoping we can find some more targets and keep it going past that.

Host: Well, Mike, it has been an absolute pleasure getting to talk with you and learning more about the Lucy Mission today. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Sekerak: Oh, thank you, Deana. Thank you for having me. I really am excited to share this exciting mission with all your listeners out there and hope they continue following us after we launch.

Host: Links to related resources to help you follow the Lucy Mission are available on our website at along with Mike’s bio and a show transcript.

We’re interested to hear your suggestions for future topics on Small Steps, Giant Leaps. If there’s a guest or topic you’d like for us to feature, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s app-el – or contact us via the NASA APPEL Knowledge Services website.

As always, thanks for listening.