Zac Manchester Engineer, Rocket Scientist, Bass Player

UDP Paper Accepted to CDC 2016

My advisor at Harvard, Scott Kuindersma, and I just had our paper “Derivative-Free Trajectory Optimization with Unscented Dynamic Programming” accepted to the 2016 IEEE Conference on Decision and Control. The paper describes a new trajectory optimization algorithm we developed that takes the classic Differential Dynamic Programming algorithm and applies some ideas from the Unscented Kalman Filter to eliminate the need for derivatives and improve performance. We’re calling it Unscented Dynamic Programming, or UDP for short. Here’s an example I made for the paper that calculates a barrel-roll trajectory for an airplane using the minimum-possible control effort:

Airplane Trajectory

Clubes de Ciencia

I spent the past week with an awesome organization called Clubes de Ciencia teaching university and high school students in Xalapa, a small city in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. My “club” was called ¡3, 2, 1 Despegue! (3, 2, 1, Liftoff!), and we covered the basics of orbit mechanics, spacecraft design, and satelite communication. Two big highlights of the week (in addition to the Mexican food) were listening to signals from a CubeSat and launching a high altitude balloon that eventually topped out at over 103,000 feet! Check out the footage of the launch with great views of the city below:

Article on Starshot in IEEE Spectrum

An article I wrote on Breakthrough Starshot for IEEE Specturm went online today. I tried to give some insight into the engineering challenges that the project faces without going too deep into technical details. A challenging journey lies ahead and I’m very excited to be a part of it!

Alpha Centauri

KickSat Featured in Nature News

KickSat was featured in an article in Nature News today. Check it out! While it’s unfortunate that KickSat-2 is no longer launching on the OA-5 mission this July, I’m hopeful that we’ll be manifested on another launch within a few months.

KickSat Deployment

Breakthrough Starshot

I am very excited and deeply honored to be part of the Breakthrough Starshot project that was announced this week. It was surreal to be around so many people that I admire and to witness the launch of such a bold and forward-looking journey. Check out all of the Sprites making a cameo on stage!

Starshot Group Photo

If you haven’t heard yet, Starshot is a project with the goal of sending spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our closest neghboring star system. As currently envisioned, this would involve building a bunch of small super-lightweight spacecraft and pushing them in the right direction with a giant laser until they reach 20% of the speed of light. It would then take about 20 years for the little “nanocraft” to reach Alpha Centauri. You can watch the announcement for the project, which goes into more detail and has some cool videos, at the bottom of this post.

There are, of course, many daunting engineering challenges that will have to be solved to make Starshot happen, including building the biggest laser system ever conceived, developing materials that can survive being shot by that laser without vaporizing, and communicating with the tiny spacecraft over a distance of more than four lightyears. However, all of the fundamental physics checks out. With enough time, ingenuity, and hard work, we can make it to the stars.

Ad Astra!