Meet a scientist: Jess

Jess with a prototype Mars rover

Jess with a prototype Mars rover

I work for a big Space company, where we design, build, test and launch satellites into Space that do all sorts of things (such as beam down telecommunications, or TV signals, look at distant stars or sending spacecraft and probes to other planets).  For the last year, I have been working on a mission called Bepi-Colombo which is a big European mission to send three spacecraft to the planet Mercury.  It will take 6 years for the spacecraft to get there, using a special propulsion system which accelerates tiny electrons from the spacecraft.  When it arrives at Mercury, then the 3 spacecraft will separate into separate orbits in order to observe the planet and the region around the planet to try to understand more about it.  Curiously, we know very little about Mercury, and scientists don’t even know how it was formed and why it has a magnetic field.  Other space missions I have worked on include one which will look at the Earth’s atmosphere and how much water there is in the clouds, and a mission which is going to take measurements of the Sun.

What inspired you to study physics?

I’ve always been interested in the things around me – how they work and why!  I can remember my Dad showing me the Milky Way when I was about 8 when we were on holiday camping and the thought that there are millions and millions of other stars and planets, besides our own, fascinated me.  I liked most subjects at school, but always had a real passion for science, so it was very natural for me to consider that to continue with.

At one point, I thought I might become a pilot – I did a lot of gliding and really enjoyed flying.  But, Space and science felt like my true passion, and I knew that if I did a Physics degree and still wanted to fly  then that would still be an option.  I don’t think I really knew what an Engineer was or did, and I didn’t think too much about studying it at University, so it is great that I am now an Engineer, and that my Physics degree is directly relevant to my job.  I now know that to work in the Space Industry, I could have studied a wide range of subjects, such as Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electronic Engineering, Maths, Physics, Software and that most companies have Apprenticeship Schemes too.

Having said that, I very much enjoyed my Physics degree, especially all the lab work.  As part of my course, we made water propelled rockets, and did a mini space mission design project.  It was this that inspired me to study Spacecraft Engineering in the hope that I might be able to work on Space missions for a living, which is exactly what I am doing now!

What is a typical working day?

At the moment, the mission I am working on is in manufacture in the clean rooms here, so I start the day in the clean room for a discussion on what will be happening and to check that certain elements of the design are being made correctly.  I don’t actually do any of the manufacture myself, but as I have been part of the design team I help to solve any problems they encounter, and it is great to see the design coming to life!  Then, I will go back to my office area where most of my mission team are.  We have lots of discussions, as a spacecraft is quite complex, and I am responsible for making sure all the different parts will work together, for example the electrical, mechanical, thermal and propulsion parts.  Therefore, I do lots of system level analysis, such as working out the overall distortion using knowledge about all of these different parts to work out where all the scientific instruments will be pointing at any one time, or determining how much power the spacecraft will need during the whole of it’s lifetime.  Most of this is computer based work – although I still keep a ‘lab book’ where I can write equations, rough drawings etc which I find very useful.  Sometimes I need to present the latest status to our customer, the European Space Agency (ESA), or other companies and I will then travel to Germany, Holland or France.  I also spend a lot of time with our suppliers, seeing that what they are providing will work properly in the spacecraft.

What advice would you give someone following in your footsteps?

Do something that inspires you – I liked space and problems, and am loving that now I can see my solutions being made into reality and that it will one day be orbiting Mercury!  But, if I hadn’t become a spacecraft engineer, then there are many other areas in the field that I could have equally enjoyed, such as space research, and my degree set me up for many options.  So, try to keep it fairly broad to begin with, as it is easy to specialise later.  Also, maths is very important for scientists and engineers, so make sure you continue with that too.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I love that my opinion counts, and that as part of a team we are going to build something that will travel millions of miles away, to see something we have never seen before.  I love the sense of adventure and exploration.  I am also very lucky that my day is always different, and that it is very often unpredictable as well.  I have been working for 6 years and I still am learning new things all the time.  I may be biased, but I think I have a pretty interesting job and I love telling people about space and spacecraft design. It is always interesting to introduce myself to people as a spacecraft engineer too!