Puzzles and the Family Business Prepared NASA Engineer to Help Deliver an Asteroid Sample

Name: Coralie Adam

Title: OSIRIS-REx Optical Navigation Lead and Touch-And-Go (TAG) Navigation Manager: Lead Optical Navigation Engineer at KinetX Aerospace

Education: B.S. in Aerospace Engineering and Astronomy at the University of Illinois; M.S. in Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado

Superpower Skill:  Solving problems, puzzles and logic games

Hobbies: Making music playlists and exploring many aspects of life on Earth


New Year’s Eve, 2018, Littleton, Colorado – Coralie Adam and her colleagues had dressed up in their finest clothes: tuxedos and gowns. They were heading into work to oversee NASA’s OSIRIS-REx as it entered orbit around asteroid Bennu. Shortly before midnight Coordinated Universal Time (5 p.m. MST), the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired thrusters and successfully began orbiting Bennu for the very first time.

“Years of planning and analysis went into preparing for that special day,” said Adam. “It was the first time in history that any mission ever attempted to orbit a planetary object as small as Bennu.”

group photo blue background

On New Years Eve 2018, the OSIRIS-REx navigation team celebrate a successful work night after the OSIRIS-REx Orbit Insertion.Credits: Courtesy Coralie Adam

OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, and it is scheduled to collect a sample from Bennu on Oct. 20.

Adam has been working on the OSIRIS-REx mission since 2011, when she joined KinetX Aerospace. She is the mission’s Optical Navigation (OpNav) Lead and Touch-And-Go (TAG) Navigation Manager. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft uses optical navigation as its primary navigation method. Cameras onboard the spacecraft capture images of both stars and the asteroid to determine the spacecraft’s location and trajectory.

Once the navigation team settled into the rhythm of OpNav operations around Bennu, Adam’s role evolved into TAG Navigation Manager for Kinetx. In this position, she coordinates between the navigation, 3-D modeling (altimetry), and spacecraft teams to ensure that OSIRIS-REx has the best set of maps to navigate itself down to the Nightingale crater – the site on Bennu where OSIRIS-REx will gather its sample.

During the TAG event, OSIRIS-REx will use a navigation technique called Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) to navigate down to Bennu’s surface and collect a sample. NFT allows OSIRIS-REx to autonomously descend to Bennu’s surface by comparing an onboard image catalog with the real-time navigation images taken during descent. Adam’s team has been using a similar method to navigate the spacecraft in and out of orbit around Bennu since January 2019.

Her first exposure to space navigation and mission operations came during her senior year of college during a summer research internship at Cornell University’s Astronomy and Space Science department. She built 3D maps of comets from 2D images provided by NASA’s Stardust-NExT and EPOXI spacecraft.  Soon after, she was hired.

“One of my strengths is logistics and sorting out how all the pieces of the system fit together, said Adam. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the office of our family business, a transportation logistics company, where I learned the importance of every detail coming together to get the goods from point A to point B.”

Adam is also good at puzzles and logic games “My mom and I did several big puzzles a year as a kid,” Adam said. “And, I’ve even done a few to relax during this pandemic.”

Outside work, Adam is an avid explorer of many aspects of life on Earth. “I enjoy spending my free time learning new skills, exploring new places, and discovering new music,” said Adam. “I am deeply interested in archaeology and ancient civilizations, spending most of my vacation time in museums and archaeological sites with a camera in hand.”

woman stands before collonaded ruins

OSIRIS-REx Optical Navigation Lead and Touch-And-Go (TAG) Navigation Manager Coralie Adam stands before the Parthenon in Greece.Credits: Meghan Keyes

Adam is always listening to music, exploring new artists, and creating playlists. During the OSIRIS-REx approach to Bennu, the navigation team collaborated on a “proximity operations” song of the day playlist, inspired by their favorite space songs.

The morning of OSIRIS-REx orbit insertion, New Year’s Eve 2018, the team had yet to find the perfect song of the day. As Adam carpooled into mission control with other navigators dressed to the nines, a song came on the satellite radio: “Will it Go Round in Circles,” by Billy Preston. 

The lyrics:

Will it go round in circles?
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?

“That’s it, that’s our song for orbit insertion,” exclaimed Adam.

The song echoed through mission control as the team witnessed a flawless first orbit insertion at Bennu.

Adam is searching for a theme song for the tense and exhilarating minutes next month when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lowers itself to Bennu’s surface, extends its mechanical arm and attempts the first asteroid sample collection for NASA.

Once OSIRIS-REx successfully collects a sample from Bennu, it will begin its journey home in mid-2021. The spacecraft is scheduled to return the sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.


By Rani Gran

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.Last Updated: Oct. 9, 2020Editor: Karl Hille

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