Merel Vergaaij wins Heinz Stoewer Space Award 2020

News - 26 April 2020

The third Heinz Stoewer Space Award is won by Merel Vergaaij for her Master thesis on “Time-optimal solar-sail transfers from Earth to pole-sitters at Mars and Venus”. The prize is awarded on an annual basis to an MSc student or young graduate of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering for a master thesis in the space domain. This year, the award was presented by Dr. Jeannette Heiligers during the VSV Symposium 2020: ‘The Red Destination – A Lunar Voyage to Mars’ on 10 March 2020.

Thesis work

For her thesis, Merel used novel tools and techniques from astrodynamics to design transfers from a parking orbit around Earth to pole-sitter locations at Venus and Mars. She proved that such transfers are achievable using solar-sail propulsion, a highly green and sustainable form of propulsion. With this, Merel contributed to responsible exploration and exploitation of space. According to Vergaaij’s supervisor Dr. Jeannette Heiligers, during her thesis, Merel demonstrated “exceptional research and communication skills, as well as a very professional attitude. Her MSc thesis work was therefore awarded with the highest possible score of a 10 out of 10”.


“As proof of the quality of the work, her thesis was submitted – without any modifications – to one of the top journals in our field of research, the AIAA Journal of Guidance Control and Dynamics – and was accepted”, explained Dr. Heiligers during the VSV symposium on 10 March 2020. “During her MSc thesis work Merel also presented her internship work, which she conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder, at the IAC congress in Australia. She attended that conference with a prestigious scholarship of ESA and after the conference her work was invited for submission to the Journal of Acta Astronautica and was also accepted”. 

Heinz Stoewer Space Award

All these achievements and qualities made the Prize Committee decide to award Merel with this year’s Heinz Stoewer Space Award. This award was initiated in 2018 by Prof. Stoewer, when he was awarded the IEEE Simon Ramo medal, the most prestigious award worldwide in the field of Systems Engineering. He proposed to donate his prize money to ‘encourage and stimulate the high quality of our Master students and to promote the visibility of students’ work being of high societal relevance’.

Merel Vergaaij is now a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, where she is investigating coupled trajectory and economic analysis of near-Earth asteroid resources.