Meet Allan Posner, Asteroid Institute Engineer and Astrodynamicist

Meet Allan Posner, Asteroid Institute Engineer and Astrodynamicist

Meet Allan Posner, Asteroid Institute Engineer and Astrodynamicist https://asteroidday-uploads.s3.eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/28182850/ALLAN-POSNER.jpeg 480 270 Asteroid Day Asteroid Day https://asteroidday-uploads.s3.eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/28182850/ALLAN-POSNER.jpeg

They say that first loves never die. For engineer and astrodynamicist Allan Posner, that first love was space.

“I was a child of the 60s and was really enthralled by all the Moon landings that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s. And I just really wanted to work in the space business,” says Allan.

He is currently working as an engineer and astrodynamicist at the Asteroid Institute. His focus is helping to develop the Institute’s Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping platform (ADAM), a software platform for mapping, modelling, and analyzing asteroid observations and data, primarily from the Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly named LSST).

Yet this is just the latest role in a storied career that has seen him take on significant roles for both the US Department of Defense (DoD) and for NASA.

Photo of Allan Posner at the Satellite Control Center for NASA’s FUSE program in 2000. Credit: NASA

Inspired by the extraordinary lunar landings he had seen unfold on television, when he finished school, he enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, earning a degree in physics. After that, he got a job in the space department of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

He found himself working on so-called ‘dilution-of-precision’ calculations for GPS-satellite-system projects. This was before GPS was a household name and a ubiquitous service. Instead it was still mostly used by the DoD for tracking missiles. “It was a fascinating job for someone right out of school,” he says.

His growing expertise with GPS led him to work on the DoD’s Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) program, where he led a software-development effort to design code that mission operators would use to predict the spacecraft’s position in its orbit and its resultant visibility to the various ground stations around the world.

It, too, was a fascinating learning experience. “I became acquainted with the people, the processes and the software that the guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) folks use in uploads to the spacecraft,” says Allan.

An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft at asteroid Eros. Credit: NASA

And that became the key to opening up his next job. He was asked to join the mission-operations team at APL for NASA’s historic Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission. Within that team, he worked on the GN&C, becoming the liaison between the mission-operations team (who communicate with the spacecraft and send it commands), the flight team (who designed and built the spacecraft), and the people developing the spacecraft’s software.

The NEAR mission was an extraordinary success, visiting the near-Earth asteroid Eros in 1998 and showing us what it looked like for the first time. Along with the invaluable scientific data that the mission returned, it also scored another first in our exploration of the solar system by landing on Eros at the end of its mission. But perhaps the most important thing was that it did all of this on a tightly-controlled budget.

“I think that was revolutionary,” says Allan, “Beforehand, you had these huge missions, like the ones going to Jupiter and beyond (for example, Pioneer and Voyager) that cost billions of dollars. Obviously, they returned good science but at a cost. But here, NEAR proved that you could do things at a lower cost successfully and provide valuable science.”

Soon after NEAR, Allan left APL to join a small company that designed satellite-control software. But after a few years, he felt the urge to explore opportunities outside of the space industry and eventually ended up working in defense intelligence for almost fifteen years before retiring. Yet, soon after that, he felt the lure of outer space once again.

Read the 2021 Asteroid Institute Annual Report.

He was at lunch with John Carrico, an astrodynamicist at the Asteroid Institute, a program of B612 Foundation. During the course of their meal, John explained that the work of the Institute was planetary defense, and if Allan wanted to apply his experience to the effort, he would fit right in.

It was an offer that appealed to Allan right away. “Even though I had left the space field, I sort of had a longing for it and wanted to return. I also wanted to try to tie in some of the work that I had done in the past,” he says.

So now, Allan has become an integral, volunteer member of the Asteroid Institute team, testing the ADAM software to determine how closely it compares with computations using other astronomical surveys. He does this by identifying test cases, and the associated test input data, running simulations on ADAM, and then comparing its output to that from the astronomical surveys. This allows ADAM’s algorithms to be fine-tuned to ensure they are working as expected.

“So it has really taken me full circle to be able to come back, even in a volunteer sense, to work on the B612 asteroid effort. It’s fulfilling, and it’s liberating to be able to work in a capacity when you’re not doing it for a paycheck,” he says.