Astronautical Engineering Student Wins “Best Professional Paper” Award

  • Published
  • By Jaclyn Knapp
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

The Air Force Institute of Technology’s Master’s of Science in Astronautical Engineering civilian student, Mr. Nathan Boone was chosen as the 2021 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics “Survivability Best Professional Paper” award recipient.  The AIAA Forum and Exposition is the largest event for aerospace research, development and technology in the world.  

“The knowledge I’ve gained through my research at AFIT has been very helpful in my current role in the Air Force, especially in terms of my understanding of spacecraft trajectories, the perturbations that influence the motion of spacecraft and the dynamics of the Earth-Moon system,” said Boone.

Boone’s “Cislunar Debris Propagation Following a Catastrophic Spacecraft Mishap,” was one of four papers presented in the survivability category of the AIAA SciTech 2021 virtual conference.  His research seeks to provide the first insights of the possible risks from debris in cislunar space to other cislunar spacecraft, as well as to spacecraft in near-Earth space.

As spacecraft operations increase in cislunar space, or the region of space extending from geosynchronous Earth orbit to the Moon, the risk that a spacecraft will suffer a catastrophic mishap that generates a significant amount of debris increases.  Although many similar events have transpired in orbits closer to Earth and debris near Earth has been heavily studied, very few studies have examined the risks from debris beyond the near-Earth orbital environment.

The results of Boone’s research discovered the risk of debris in cislunar space was small but varied depending on the mishap.  Simulations of various cislunar debris case studies found a significant amount of debris particles in lower orbital altitudes in a mishap during a transfer to the Moon, or what transpired in the Apollo 13 explosion.  The debris particles from these mishaps were found in lower altitudes that currently contained operational spacecraft.  If a similar event happened today, the crowded orbital environment close to Earth could be threatened.

“I would enthusiastically recommend AFIT to other civilian students.  The professors are very knowledgeable and have helped me a lot.  I enjoy the small class sizes at AFIT and how willing professors are to help,” said Boone.

As a part-time civilian master’s student, Boone presented his research at three space-affiliated technical conferences in 2020 and early 2021.  Following his March 2021 graduation, his research will be presented at various space-affiliated, globally attended conferences throughout the remainder of the year.  

“In the future, I plan to extend the models I’ve developed in this research to study a catastrophic mishap in lunar orbit.  Debris in lunar orbit has been largely unstudied and could possibly become an issue if the lunar environment becomes more crowded in the future,” said Boone.

“I hope to serve as the expert in my office on cislunar and lunar space as we begin to see greater numbers of spacecraft operating in those regions in the coming years,” said Boone.

Each year, the Center for Space Research and Assurance’s faculty and astronautical engineering and space systems graduate students attend and present both virtually and in-person at an average of one conference per month.  These space-affiliated conferences are nationally and globally attended and assist the students and faculty with opportunities to gain additional expertise and knowledge for developing research solutions for DoD-affiliated topics and collaborations.

“Technical conferences provide our graduate students an amazing opportunity to participate in the wider engineering community.  This award demonstrates the ability of AFIT students to deliver timely, relevant, and cutting edge research despite complications imposed by the COVID virtual environment,” said Maj. Robert Bettinger, CSRA deputy director.

The Air Force Institute of Technology, or AFIT, located at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, is the Air Force’s graduate school of engineering and strives to be student’s first choice for advanced academic education and career-long professional continuing education.

For additional information about graduate or post-doctoral degrees in astronautical engineering or space systems, please visit the CSRA website at , call 937-255-6565 extension 4753 or email