These are exciting times for the UK space industry, with the rebirth of space exploration and a huge increase in the use of satellites to provide data and services.
One of the people helping us make use of satellite services is Dr Talini Pinto Jayawardena at Devon-based Spirent Communications.
We spoke to her about how a childhood fascination with the night sky led her to study the effects of space weather on navigation satellite signals.
Tell us about your work – what does your job involve?
My work at Spirent mainly involves space weather. To give a bit of background, Spirent makes simulators of satellite navigation systems like GPS and Galileo.
These simulators are used to test anything that uses satellite navigation to know where it is. So aircraft, ships, cars – even the GPS receivers in your smartphone might have been tested using a Spirent simulator.
The point of the testing is to make sure the navigation system works properly. So the simulator has to re-create very realistically what the actual GPS, Galileo and other navigation signals look like as they come to Earth from space.
But those signals have to travel a long way – about 12,500 miles! – to reach our cars and phones. On the way they encounter all sorts of problems that GPS receiver designers need to know about. If they don’t account for them, their systems will produce errors and your car or phone won’t know exactly where it is.
And one of those problems is space weather?
Yes, some of the biggest errors in satellite navigation are caused by the upper region of the atmosphere called the ionosphere, about 40-600 miles above the Earth’s surface. This region is strongly affected by space weather.
Space weather is a bit like our weather here on Earth, but instead of wind and rain, it’s radiation and particles coming from the Sun. One way space weather is a problem is that it changes the electron content in the ionosphere, which scatter the radio signals as they travel through this region – an effect called scintillation.
It makes satellite navigation signals fluctuate very rapidly, sometimes so much that devices here on Earth lose lock on it, and can’t use it for navigation. This can become a problem when using satellite navigation in critical applications like aviation.
So my job when I came to Spirent was to model the effects of ionospheric scintillation on GPS signals, so we could replicate it as realistically as possible in our simulators.
How did you come to be a space weather expert?
For my PhD at the University of Bath, I developed an instrument called TOPCAT that was sent into space by the UK Space Agency, on a miniature satellite called a CubeSat. It was designed to measure the electron density of the ionosphere, and to see how it affects GPS signals.
It works in a similar way to CT or MRI scans that is used in hospitals. In a CT scan, signals are passed through your body to image different layers of the body. TOPCAT uses the same principle with GPS signals that travel through the ionosphere from the GPS satellite to the TOPCAT receiver, to image electron density structures in the ionosphere.
The images allow us to see how the ionosphere changes with time and helps us understand what happens during space weather storms.
Have you always been interested in space?
Ever since a school project when I was 11, when I learned that some of the brightest stars we can see that don't twinkle are actually not stars, but planets in our solar system.
As part of that project the teacher asked us to observe the night sky. And I did something that nobody should ever do, because it can damage your eyes if you look at the wrong star. But I didn’t know that then!
I looked at the sky through a pair of binoculars without a filter – and through those binoculars I saw Jupiter. Seeing it with my own eyes made me realise how much more there is in the universe than just our own planet. After that, I would always look up at the night sky, and wonder what's really out there.
Did you think back then that you would work in the space industry one day?
No, not at all. I grew up in Sri Lanka, and space science wasn’t really a known topic at that time. I was just following my interest, looking up at the sky. And it was fun to learn about. I was always reading up on anything to do with space – planets, stars, galaxies – and imagining what space looks like.
But I've always liked science, even from my youngest days. So for my GCSEs I did physics, chemistry, biology and human biology. And geography, because I was also interested in geology, in learning about what the Earth is made of. And then for my A-levels I did the classical sciences: physics, chemistry, biology and maths.
When I started thinking about a career, I wasn't planning to be a scientist – I was planning to be an engineer, because there are lots of jobs in engineering. But I still wanted to learn more about space, so I applied for a course at the University of Bath that covered both: electronics with space science and technology.
It seems like there's a lot going on in space at the moment, why is that?
It is a really exciting time for the industry. Firstly, there’s a long-term international plan to send humans to Mars. The first step is to put humans back on the moon, and spend multiple days there – and the first stage of that is to build a space station that orbits the moon called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, or LOP-G.
There are also more and more satellites orbiting the Earth and sending data back, which can be used for all kinds of things – from weather forecasting, to planning crops, to helping to rescue people after a natural disaster.
Do you have any advice for girls interested in a career in the space industry?
If you’re interested in space science, the best thing is to take part in things like science fairs and other school/hobby projects where you can get involved in building things and doing experiments.
And don’t be put off by the word ‘science’. It can sound difficult and boring, but it’s really not. Science can be a lot of fun and best of all it covers a lot of things – from the space and sky to animals, buildings and even cooking!
Don’t be put off by the word ‘science’. It can sound difficult and boring, but it’s really not. Science can be a lot of fun and it covers a lot of things – from the space and sky to animals, buildings and even cooking!
A career in science also involves a lot of creativity and imagination, and it’s a real team effort as well – so if you enjoy hobbies like craft and music or if you like playing team sports, these will all help in a career in science too.
And space doesn’t just need scientists and engineers! There are so many jobs opening up. Space needs doctors - there's actually a specialised field called space medicine. It needs geologists, it needs architects, and there are even space lawyers, so there are lots of ways you can get into the industry.
Find out more about studying space science and technology
Talini studied electronic engineering with space science and technology at the University of Bath. Find out more about what you can learn there.