By TECgirls contributor Rachel Picken
Cornwall has a fast-growing space sector, with plans to create a horizontal-launch spaceport at Newquay by 2021. Goonhilly Earth Station near Helston is home to giant satellite dishes that help beam communications across the world, and between Earth and space.
Olivia Smedley is a space scientist at Goonhilly. She talked to us about her job, and why it’s important to follow your passion – especially if that’s in science and coding!
What is your job?
My role is actually quite varied. I work in the engineering team, and I'm involved in all sorts of exciting projects.
A typical day starts off by going around the whole site and doing an antenna health check. That involves making sure that all the antennas are functioning as they should, or if not doing a bit of fault finding then making sure things are fixed.
I've also recently been doing some software development for the monitoring and control system on Goonhilly 6, our largest satellite dish. It’s 32m wide, which is roughly the same as seven double-decker buses stacked on top of each other! This is the satellite dish that’s being upgraded for deep space communications.
What do the satellite dishes do at Goonhilly?
They’re antennas that let us communicate with satellites in orbit around the Earth. If you can imagine the dishes are like buckets out in the rain – the larger the buckets, the more rain that you can collect.
At Goonhilly it's not rain we're dealing with – though we do get a lot of that too! – but information contained in radio signals. The signals we collect come from satellites in orbit around the Earth, or from spacecraft travelling to the Moon or Mars.
The larger dishes can collect and detect information from weaker signals. Goonhilly 6 will be able to provide communications for future Moon and Mars missions, so the spacecraft can communicate with us back on Earth.
When will we be able to get to Mars?
The technology to get to humans to Mars isn't there yet. But a company called SpaceX is developing the Starship spacecraft, which will be a fully reusable rocket to enable us to be able to reach these greater distances out in the solar system.
Under current technology, experts think it will take around six months to actually travel to Mars. SpaceX has ambitious plans to have a crewed landing on Mars by 2024! And NASA is also preparing to send astronauts to Mars by around 2030 with its SLS rocket.
The key to reaching these goals is that we need the next generation of STEM enthusiasts to help develop new technologies!
What is it like to work in space science?
For me, it's my dream job - I absolutely love it. Ever since I was young, I've always been interested in space and science. I used to have a telescope out in the garden to look at the Moon and planets, which really inspired me to study it further.
So I followed that passion. I studied astrophysics at university, but I wasn’t really aware of the jobs that you can actually get in the space industry.
Before working at Goonhilly I’ve had a few other jobs along the way. I was a science teacher for a while. But I just realised that I wanted to do something where I was continuing to learn about space and really challenge myself.
And what were your favourite lessons at school?
Definitely all the sciences. I studied A levels in biology, chemistry, physics and maths.
Other than that I did actually really like art. So I like the creative side of it as well - creativity in science is something that I'm interested in. It's really useful in my job where we often have to problem solve.
Did you like coding and robots and things at school?
I think I really would have done. But when I was at school, we just didn’t do coding. I didn’t even know it existed until I was at secondary school.
At school, we just didn’t do coding. I didn’t even know it existed until I was at secondary school.
Then I did a coding module at university, which is the first time I've ever done anything like that so I found it quite challenging initially!
I’m now studying part time for a master’s degree in science and technology, while working at Goonhilly. And that involves coding in Python. So now, I really love coding. I’m really enjoying it.
I did join an after-school STEM club where I was involved in a team competition to make a water-powered vehicle. I was the only girl, but I didn’t let that put me off.
Why is Cornwall a great place to work in space science?
The space industry is growing rapidly in Cornwall at the moment – not just with Goonhilly but also with the spaceport at Newquay, which will provide the horizontal launch facilities. So it's a really exciting time to get involved and to set goals to work in the space sector in the future.
It's a really exciting time to get involved in the space industry, and to set goals to work in the space sector in the future
I used to come down to Cornwall on holiday with my family all the time when I was younger, so I love it here.
And if someone had told me back then there were going to be jobs working with space science in Cornwall, I would have said it was crazy! But here I am, in the place that’s becoming the space hub for the UK.
If someone had told me there were going to be jobs working with space science in Cornwall, I would have said it was crazy! But here I am, in the place that’s becoming the space hub for the UK.
How can girls get into space science?
Follow your passion and what you're interested in! Get inspired by other women in the profession. There’s lots of interesting books to help with this such as A Galaxy of Her Own, Women in Science and Hidden Figures.
And remember – anything is possible if you believe in yourself and put your mind to it! Also don’t be afraid of failing or making mistakes because you usually learn the most from those experiences. So don't give up, and do believe in yourself.
About Goonhilly Earth Station: https://www.goonhilly.org
About Spaceport Cornwall: https://spaceportcornwall.com
About SpaceX and the Starship: https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/starship/