5 mins read 24 Oct 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Jill Seubert

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Jill Seubert is the Founder of Australis Space Navigation. Credit: Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well-known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.  

Jill Seubert - Deep Space Navigator and Founder, Australis Space Navigation

What is your role?

As a deep space navigator, I guide spacecraft traversing the Solar System to ensure they reach their intended destinations. Every spacecraft has a planned trajectory, and it's my responsibility to determine where a spacecraft has been and predict where it will be in the future. 

Much of my career so far has been in trajectory determination for missions to Mars, where the spacecraft navigator's prediction of when, where, and how the spacecraft will enter the Martian atmosphere is paramount to a safe landing. 

I moved to Australia to be closer to my family here and started Australis Space Navigation. Australis Space Navigation provides spacecraft navigation and mission operations expertise, including Earth orbit, cislunar space and deep space.  I founded Australis Space Navigation as a means to continue doing meaningful work in the field of spacecraft navigation, which brings me such joy and is an integral part of my identity.

Who have you met that has had the most impact on your career journey so far?

Though my career has been shaped by many individuals, two, in particular, stand out. As a new graduate who didn't really know what she wanted to do with her degree, I wandered into a conference presentation that would forever alter my trajectory. 

Dr Moriba Jah (University of Texas at Austin, Privateer) kindled my passion for deep space navigation, showed me that I belonged in the astrodynamics community as much as anyone else, and encouraged me to follow my own path even when it went against expectations. 

Dr Todd Ely (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) saw my potential, believed that I could accomplish things that I had only dreamt of, and advocated for me to be given opportunities to excel.

In 2019 professor Penina Axelrad was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice or education. Credit: University of Colorado.

Which women in the history of the Space Industry do you look up to? What was it about their achievements that resonated with you?

Dr Penina Axelrad (University of Colorado) is an absolute icon of astrodynamics. She has an illustrious career as a highly-respected professor and has achieved top honours through her research. I have worked with many brilliant individuals, but Penny always stands out through her ability to connect abstract concepts and translate them into real-world applications. She doesn't just demonstrate excellence but also demands it. 

My time studying with Penny not only gave me the technical skills for success, but also transformed me into a confident engineer who acknowledges and values both her weaknesses and strengths. 

What has been the highlight of your career so far or what are you looking forward to most in the future?

I've been fortunate to work on many incredible projects, such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars InSight Lander, and the Mars Science Mission 2020, which carried both the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter. 

The successful landing of Perseverance, which by the way we navigated to Mars almost entirely from our home offices due to the covid pandemic, was one of the highlights of my career, and the best may be yet to come. Perseverance and descendants of Ingenuity will play a major role in the planned Mars Sample Return, which will return Martian samples to Earth for the very first time.

While we can only hypothesize about what we'll discover when that happens, I'm honoured to have contributed to such an amazing endeavour. 

What has been your most interesting discovery or the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

The moments that I always find the most interesting are those when things don't go quite according to plan. An unexpected blizzard interfering with tracking data, an unpredictable spacecraft attitude control system, a late-night go/no-go discussion on whether or not to execute a spacecraft maneuver less than 24 hours from Mars. 

While off-nominal situations can teach us many nuances of the technical systems we work with, the most interesting aspect to me is what we learn about human nature - and ourselves.