(December 9, 2023) A tiny satellite called ASTERIA, no bigger than a briefcase, did something once only big telescopes could do. It detected 55 Cancri e, a planet twice the size of Earth and possibly made of diamond inside, 41 light years away from earth. ASTERIA was only 10×20×30 cm in size and weighed 10 kg, the smallest planet-hunting satellite ever. Astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS) had put it into space in late 2017. It lasted 18 months before burning up in earth’s atmosphere in 2020.
It was a NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and MIT project to test if a tiny telescope on a small satellite could focus on stars for a long time. Detecting 55 Cancri e went beyond expectations, showing small satellites could discover exoplanets as well.
Following this achievement, the ASTERIA team earned the NASA Group Achievement Award for their innovative use of a CubeSat in scientific research. Dr Akshata Krishnamurthy, an MIT alumna and deep tech advisor working as principal investigator and mission science phase lead at NASA JPL, made it a moment of pride for India as part of this important mission. “We made news! We built the smallest satellite capable of detecting an exoplanet,” Akshata had shared after this achievement. For her key role in instrument characterisation and science data analysis for ASTERIA she was quoted by major science journals in their press releases.
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After the successful mission, the Space & Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) announced its fourth annual 20 Under 35 list in 2021, recognising Akshata as one of the exceptional honourees.
The rocket scientist has played a vital role in multiple NASA-backed space missions. She has been involved in conducting robotic operations on the Martian surface, contributing to the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission, and is being hailed as the first Indian to operate the rover on Mars. At the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the MIT alumuna offers extensive knowledge in flight systems engineering, small satellites, instrument calibration, performance modeling, processing science data for exoplanet discovery, and developing mission concepts.
Inspirational journey of working at NASA
“I came to the United States a little over 13 years ago with almost nothing but a dream to work at NASA and lead breakthrough science and robotic operations on Earth and Mars,” Akshata shared recently in a social media post. “Everyone I met told me that this was impossible as a foreign national on a visa, and that I should either have a plan B or change my field completely. I’m glad that I didn’t listen to anyone. I persevered until I found a way!” the Global Indian remarked.
From getting her PhD at MIT to knocking hundreds of doors for employment to finally getting hired full-time at NASA, nothing came easy to Akshata. “Today, I work on multiple cool space missions including the Perseverance Rover collecting samples to bring back to Earth,” she shared adding, “No dream is ever too big or crazy. Believe in yourself, keep those blinkers on and keep working! You’ll get there if you work hard.”
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A proud MIT alumna
Reflecting on her time at MIT, Akshata remarked, “Going to MIT changed my life,” expressing happiness about being surrounded by the ‘smartest people’ and having exciting opportunities for learning and growth.
At the renowned institution, which is a dream for many, Akshata recalled feeling outside her comfort zone every day, relishing the discomfort. She continues to value MIT’s unparalleled exposure and freedom to explore, even as a NASA scientist.
MIT instilled in her the resilience to face challenges without intimidation. The institution’s motto, ‘mens et manus’— mind and hand — has equipped her, like other esteemed alumni, to merge academic knowledge with practical applications.
“Every MIT graduate shares a love for problem-solving and finding creative solutions.” Her MIT experience taught her that challenges are opportunities. She views challenges as chances to learn and grow, advocating for learning from mistakes and persevering toward dreams, as success often rewards those who persist.
Putting social media to good use
“My goal is to inspire and motivate 1 million people to dream big and live their best lives,” she shared on Instagram that boasts of nearly 50,000 followers. Akshata utilises social media to share insights about her journey as a rocket scientist involved in exciting missions.
She addresses common queries from aspiring youngsters aiming for successful STEM careers as engineers or scientists. Her message emphasises perseverance, encouraging individuals to pursue their goals despite others’ opinions. Akshata believes one shouldn’t explain their dreams or seek approval, advocating for self-belief, ambitious thinking, and resisting limitations imposed by others or societal norms.
“I am eternally grateful to the opportunities and support from family, friends, teachers, mentors and anyone I’ve crossed paths along the way,” shared the rocket scientist who moved to the US to pursue her higher studies, 13 years back.
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Awards and accolades
Apart from the NASA Group Achievement Award that she received after the successful ASTERIA mission, Akshata has received several awards and accolades throughout her career. She was honoured with the Emerging Space Leader Award, and the Luigi G. Napolitano Award from the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). She has also received recognitions like the MIT Graduate Women of Excellence Award, Dr. Robbin Chapman Excellence Through Adversity Award, and multiple educational fellowships such as the Schlumberger Faculty for the Future Fellowship, Zonta Amelia Earhart Fellowship, and SPIE Optics and Photonics Fellowship.
Beyond her professional commitments, Akshata has served as a peer reviewer for journals like Universe, Aerospace, and Remote Sensing. She has been the global judge for NASA’s Space Apps Competition and has delivered talks at platforms like the Apollo 50+50 event at MIT. In the past she served as the MIT Sandbox Fund Fellow, mentor and reviewer of early-stage technology startups, and was also appointed by the MIT President L. Rafael Reif to the MIT Presidential Advisory Cabinet (PAC).
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