July 15, 2015 8:00 pm

Project Voyager, and How We Get To the Stars

Today’s guest post is from Zach Fejes, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto who wanted a career in the space industry and ended up creating his own job. Zach is the Project Lead for Project Voyager associated with Icarus Interstellar. Voyager is an R&D project to create next generation mission planning software enabling the advancement of space exploration, and education. His team is made up entirely of student volunteers with a deep passion for space. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find him on twitter: @zachfejes, or via email: zfejes@icarusinterstellar.org.

As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to explore the universe. I’ve wanted to set foot on new worlds, and to look out the window of a spaceship and see nothing but stars. The pursuit of these dreams drove me to study engineering in university. The next step, I knew, would be to find a way into the space industry.

But, for a student – and in particular, a non-American student – jobs in the space industry are rare and difficult to come by. I decided that the best way forward was to hone the skills that would be relevant to a space industry career. So, in my third year of studies at the University of Toronto, I started a small coding project to simulate the motions of the planets, in order to expand my knowledge of orbital mechanics.

Zachary Fejes' early concept drawing for orbital simulator program.

Figure 1 – Early concept drawing for orbital simulator program. Photo and sketch by: Zachary Fejes.

That summer, I saved up my earnings and went down to Texas for Icarus Interstellar’s first Starship Congress. Icarus is an international research organization dedicated to the development of interstellar travel. I was hoping for a chance to speak with a scientist whose research I had been following for years, but as it turned out, he was practically the only person at the conference I didn’t end up speaking with. I was introduced to many of the scientists and engineers who do research with Icarus – professionals who research deep space exploration! How cool is that? The conference served to reinvigorate my excitement for space travel, which I sorely needed after several dispiriting years of electrical engineering.

After describing my coding project to the top brass of Icarus, they suggested that – with work – it could become much more than a toy simulator. After some discussion, my project was brought under the umbrella of Icarus, and Project Voyager was born. With the expertise and experience available within Icarus Interstellar, I was able to quickly flesh out and formalize the goals and scope of the project.

Over the next several months, I put together a phenomenal team made up entirely of student volunteers to tackle the project. Together, we dedicated our spare time to the development of the Voyager software, with the intent to better the space industry and science education. I graduated from the University of Toronto last year, and I’ve since dedicated myself full time to the pursuit of this goal.

Photo of some of the Voyager Team at the University of Toronto, taken by Zachary Fejes.

Figure 2 – Part of the Voyager Team at the University of Toronto. Clockwise from bottom left: Nikola Žikić, Zeev Suprun, Jihad El Sheikh, Aisha Quadir, Behrad Vatankhahghadim, Sarang Nerkar, Vincent Aulia. Photo credit: Zachary Fejes.

Project Voyager is, in essence, about improving the mission planning software used in research, education, and industry. Our plan is to develop the most powerful mission planning software available, and to use it to bolster the space industry from bottom to top. This means providing an incredible tool that can be used not only by academic institutions the world over for teaching and learning, but also by both young and established space companies for planning and executing the next generation of space missions.

Voyager is an incredibly detailed space map, which enables accurate and flexible mission planning over distances ranging from planetary orbit to interstellar trajectories. Our map will include all stars and known exoplanets within 15 light-years of our solar system. Voyager’s mission planning system works in real time, and will create documentation that is updated with each change to the mission. For more detailed analyses, the software also includes an n-body gravitational simulator to determine highly accurate trajectories for the mission’s current parameters, using a process that is more computationally intensive than the initial phases of mission planning.

Screenshot from Voyager software, showing a probe based on the Voyager 1 spacecraft shifting orbits around Mars.

Figure 3 – Screenshot of Voyager software. This is a simple mission of a probe based on the Voyager 1 spacecraft shifting orbits around Mars. Photo Credit: Voyager Software.

There are few educational tools in use today that can help students gain a true intuition into spaceflight and orbital mechanics, and understandably so – they are difficult concepts at the best of times. My team has risen to this challenge. By utilizing modern video game design concepts alongside the rigorous science and mathematics required by the space industry, we are creating software that is incredibly accessible without compromising the accuracy expected of industry software. Operating in real-time, users can immediately experience the result of a maneuver or a change in orbit. The software’s visual nature makes it ideal for educators to demonstrate spaceflight concepts to their classrooms.

Screen capture from the alpha version of Voyager, displaying the inner planets of the Solar System. Credit: Voyager Software.

Figure 4 – The inner planets of the Solar System, as displayed in the alpha version of Voyager. Photo credit: Voyager Software.

This week, we have just completed a major internal project milestone. Our software’s alpha development phase has come to a close, and the core functionality of Voyager has been realized. We still have a long way to go before Voyager is ready for distribution, but with my team’s high level of enthusiasm and their excellent work ethic, I have no doubt that we will get there. Each member of my team is amazing, and we have collectively taught ourselves more about orbital mechanics, programming, and space sciences than we would have ever learned from our studies in school alone.

The first public demo of the Voyager pre-release software will feature at Icarus’ Starship Congress this September. This year marks Icarus Interstellar’s second Starship Congress, hosted September 4-5 by Drexel University in Philadelphia. Learning from the successes of the 2013 conference, this year’s event will be focused heavily on student development, excitement, and opportunity in the space industry. Along with incredible talks by experts from across the field, the second Starship Congress will feature the Interstellar Hackathon event over the course of the weekend. We want to use this conference to inspire students to pursue their interests in space, and show them that there are opportunities for them to get involved well before they graduate. I invite anyone who is interested in space exploration to join us at the conference, and to see and experience our work first hand.

Every tool that we add to our collective toolbox makes more innovation and discovery possible. Through focusing on the development of enabling tools like Voyager, and putting those tools in the hands of scientists, engineers, and students the world over, we enable greater and faster development.

The path to exploring the stars is taken one step at a time. We invite you to take that step with us at Starship Congress this September.

For more information on Project Voyager, Icarus Interstellar, and the Starship Congress:

http://projectvoyager.ca

http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/

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