Kyle Palmer describes how his childhood dream of space travel led to a career at Europe's largest satellite firm
When I was 14 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to go into space. The problem was that I didn't have a clue how do it, and when I was picking which subjects to study for my Standard Grades (the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs), I remember having the horrible feeling that I was already limiting my career options. Fortunately, I chose to continue with mathematics and physics, and nine years later, I've landed in my dream job, designing satellites for a living.
I joined Airbus Defence and Space (formerly Astrium Satellites) as a graduate mission systems engineer in the space systems division, which means I am part of a company that has been involved in nearly all of the Earth Observation and Science missions of the European Space Agency (ESA) to date. At my site in Stevenage, UK, I only have to take a short stroll around the factory to see missions such as LISA Pathfinder (which will test the techniques for a future mission to look for gravitational waves), Aeolus (which uses an innovative LIDAR system to measure global wind profiles for climate and weather predictions) and the test-bed rovers Bridget and Bruno, which are part of ESA's ExoMars?project.
As a mission systems engineer, I am involved with the design of satellite missions from the very beginning, when we work with staff from ESA and academics at universities across Europe to understand their scientific needs and then design satellites to meet them. The "mission studies" that emerge from this process provide a top-level description of how a satellite could be put together to produce the required scientific output. These studies then get repeated in much more detail and along the way the teams working on them grow. After a few iterations, the projects leave my department and are given to a dedicated team made up of specialists from around the company. This new team then turns our preliminary studies into actual satellites in the company's clean rooms.
Many skills, many roles
The first big step in my transformation from space dreamer to space scientist came when, having completed a BSc in mathematics and physics at the University of Glasgow, I moved south to do an MSc in astronautics and space engineering at Cranfield University in England. I would be lying if I said I was completely confident about the move, as I was unsure how well I would cope with the switch to an engineering degree. But as it turned out, my fears were ungrounded. The course was full of mathematicians and physicists as well as engineers from all disciplines, all striving to learn everything they could about space and the satellites and rovers used to explore it. During the course's group project, about a dozen of us collaborated on the design of a spacecraft, and it soon became clear that everyone slotted into roles that suited their?background.
Since then, I have come to realize that this process also reflects how things work in the real space industry. For example, the missions systems department at Airbus Defence and Space employs people from many specialisms, with distinct roles for physicists and astrophysicists as well as engineers. There are also numerous physicists in other areas of the business. Basically, as long as you have a scientific background, you can start almost any career regardless of whether your degree (or degrees) are in physics, mathematics and/or engineering.
In the seven months since I began working in mission systems, I have already been involved in several projects. My first task was to use MATLAB to create a simulator for a satellite mission, with the aim of modelling the performance of the payload. Later, I adapted this program to model the calibration technique that the satellite will employ. From this, it was possible to work out how well errors in the system can be estimated using the model, which in turn indicate the possible errors in the final scientific project. This project drew on the coding skills I learned in my physics degree and also the research skills I picked up along the way, since I had to sift through and understand academic papers on imaging techniques, mathematical methods of solving complex equations and orbital?geometry.
Another project I've worked on was related to a study on how to de-orbit defunct satellites. During this study I tested a harpoon designed to latch onto old satellites and make it possible to drag them to orbits where they will eventually burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. I also had a small role in a study called BIOMASS B1, working out disturbance forces and torques on a spacecraft for ESA's Earth Explorer 7 mission. (Previous Earth Explorer missions include the GOCE satellite, which recently gave us the best-ever measurements of Earth's gravity field.) Finally, I have worked on the concept for a sample-return mission to Phobos, one of Mars's moons.
During the two-year graduate programme, I have to undertake at least one placement in another part of the business and I can do up to three six-month placements. These placements can include a stint in another division of Airbus Defence and Space, at one of the company's many international sites or even in a subsidiary such as Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. This gives all graduates the chance to explore the business and gain or improve technical skills as well as nurturing "soft skills". A placement abroad can also help graduates to appreciate the company's multicultural nature – although I don't even have to leave my department to take a trip around the world, as I work alongside people from Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and many other countries.
Airbus Defence and Space reinvests a large portion of its revenue into its own research and development. As part of this programme, there is a company-wide call for ideas each year, and any employee can submit ideas for projects that they believe will have a positive impact on our business. Last year, I submitted and received funding for an idea that involves examining innovative orbit designs to make our spacecraft more effective. This gives me a pre-determined budget to study my idea, and I will run this mini-project on my own, with the aim of providing an end-of-year report on my progress. This is great, because it means that Airbus has already given me the opportunity and responsibility of a project manager – even if I am only managing myself.
While I haven't gone to space in person, I have nevertheless landed somewhere that the 14-year-old me probably never imagined would be possible. Working in the space industry has been an incredible experience so far, and I can't wait to see where it leads.
About the author
Kyle Palmer is a mission systems engineer at Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org