Monday, 14 December 2015

Interview with the Launch Site Range Operations Manager

We've all heard the authoritative voice, the final countdown, 10, 9, 8... But have you like me ever wondered who is the person behind those famous last lines we all hear during the launch of a rocket into Space. Well if you have, here is your chance to meet the DDO for LISA Pathfinder, Jon Harr of CNES and The Guiana Space Centre, I caught up with him just after the successful launch of LPF to find out more about the countdown and his role. 

1.      Tell me a bit about yourself, name, age, where you are from and job title…


Name Jon Harr, Age 42, from Oslo, Norway, job title Range Operations Director (DDO). I am Norwegian, but moved to France in 1998 to do my M.Sc. Telecom Engineering internship at the French Space Agency CNES in Toulouse. Since then, I have been working with CNES on various spacecraft missions, only interrupted by an academical gap year to do an MBA. In 2010, I moved to French Guiana and took on a position as a Range Mission Manager, managing radar and telemetry systems on the range. In 2013 I became part of the DDO team and did my first launch as a DDO in Oct 2014 after 11 months of training. This was an Ariane 5 launch.  


2.       What is the role of the DDO?


The DDO is as the title indicates the manager for all the launch campaign operations on the range. Roughly, these can be divided into 3 parts :

-          Management of the spacecraft preparation campaign, up to the start of the combined operations.

-          Management of the range preparations for the launch. This includes all the systems that are used during the countdown and tracking mission :

o   telemetry stations and processing means

o   radars and positioning systems

o   flight safety systems

o   security systems

o   energy, air condition and logistics

o   telecom links

o   time synchronization

o   video systems

o   meteorological measurement systems

-          Countdown operations during general rehearsal and D0. Real time management of all systems + communications/PR, safety, security, configuration management, Quality, etc.

As you can see the DDO has quite la lot of responsibility. We often compare the DDO role with the conductor of an orchestra. He ensures that everyone works in the right pace and on the right task so that the big machine that is the range will operate flawlessly. But of course, there are often problems and the DDO also manages real time problem solving when necessary.


3.       What is the most nerve wracking part of the final chronology for DDO?

Is definitely the last hour of the count-down.  Especially when there is no launch window as was the case for LISA Pathfinder. In this case all systems must be “green” at one specific moment, or we cannot launch. There is a lot of pressure, and not a lot of time to sole anomalies when they occur.  


4.       When preparing the range for a launch, what things do you have to consider? 

First of all, we have to make sure that flight safety has a good visibility of the launcher by positioning radars and telemetry antennas during all the critical phases of the flight. This is especially true during first 10 mins when the launcher is still low and close to inhabited areas. 

Next, we need to make sure that there are telemetry stations in the right positions on the globe so that important flight events can be spotted and recorded via the launcher telemetry. This can sometimes be quite difficult, and we even have to make use of a naval station (basically a boat with an antenna) from time to time. We also hook up our telemetry kit to antennas in very different countries, from Kenya and Gabon, to Australia, South Korea, Canada, Bermuda and Hawaii.

Finally, ensuring that the launcher and flight safety weather criteria are respected. The launcher itself is quite robust, and mostly sensitive to lightning strikes. However, we also have flight safety constraints, especially on the ground and high altitude winds. Luckily, we have very a highly competent team of meteorologists on the range to help us conduct the weather predictions.  


5.       What safe guards are in place on the day of the launch in case of a problem after lift-off?

CNES has delegation from the French authorities to assure the safety of people, property and environment for every launch. After lift-off, this task is handled by the Flight Safety team, who has a constant real-time visibility of the launcher on-board parameters and trajectory. If a problem occurs after lift-off, flight safety will immediately detect it and have the possibility to neutralize the launcher if exists the flight corridor and becomes dangerous. The safety limits are computed for each launch in such a way as to avoid any risk for populated areas.


6.       What is the most interesting part of your role as a DDO (which part do you enjoy the most?)

The part I enjoy the most is the countdown operations. This is when you as a DDO can enjoy the results of the hard work laid down. A smooth countdown is the fruit of thousands of hours of work by several hundred people for weeks and sometimes months, and seeing everything go like clockwork is associated with much joy for me.


7.       What is the most difficult part of your role as DDO (is there anything you don’t enjoy?)

The hardest part is probable to manage the high stress level and long working hours over a fairly long time prior to the each launch. Sometimes I almost don’t see my family for several days in a row and it is hard in the end to stay alert manage all the different activities in parallel. 


8.       How many times have you acted as DDO for a launch?  Do you have a special way to prepare personally?

LISA Pathfinder on VV06 was my 3rd launch as a DDO. In addition, I have been DDO deputy many times, both during training and now that I am qualified.


9.  When you were young, what did you want to be “when you grew up” ?

I had no particular ambition, but I remember being very fascinated by technology and of course space. My mum took me to see the 2001 Space Odyssey when I was 6. It scared me a lot, but left a long lasting impression of fascination and wonder. 


10.  Who has inspired you most?  Who would you most like to meet?

Like most of my colleagues in the space business, I’ve always been very fascinated by the Apollo missions. I guess meeting one of those pioneer astronauts would rank highly.


11.   What advice would you give to young people in school today who are interested in working in the Space business?

That it’s a long and winding road, and thus important not to have too high expectations too early. Space programs are extremely long and complicated, and our working days are most of the time not very spectacular. But if you have the ability to experience joy from collective victories, and if you have the patience to work hard for many years to get there, then the sense of meaning you will get from accomplishing a space project is highly rewarding. At least it has been for me. 


12.   What will you be doing after VV06?

Sleep, spend time with my kids, kitesurf, play the guitar and, after x-mas, start the preparations for my next launch campaign.

Thanks Jon, great talking with you.

Jon Harr, LPF DDO centre of the action during the LPF launch on 2 & 3 December 2015

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

It's Launch Day!!!

After a slight delay yesterday LISA Pathfinder launch countdown officially got underway his afternoon at 17:00 GMT.

The team are now in the midst of what will be a long night ahead hopefully culminating in a sucessful launch at 01:04 GMT on 3rd December 2015.

So what happens during the countdown?

The countdown for LPF is around 11 hours.  To begin with it is relatively quiet, the electrical spacecraft team arrive at the spacecraft control room and begin powering up the spacecraft control centre, similar activities happen in the launcher control room (all physically separate places).  Then the main control room for the mission comes online around 8 hours prior to the launch time.

Of couse around the world at both the main mission control centre in Europe and at the various tracking stations around the globe people will be taking their seats for their part in the LPF story.

For the next few hours all efforts are concentrated on checking out the numerous interfaces, making sure communication between all parties is working, ensuring every contributing element is GO for launch.

Around 3 hours before the scheduled lift off, the mobile gantry is removed, revealing the launcher.

Finally, in the last 30minutes, the status of all elements will (hopefully) turn Green for GO!  

With a 1s launch window to target, all eyes will be focussed on the GO status in the final 15mins.  

Stay tuned tonight for live updates via twitter.  Follow events as they unfold during the final hours with me @vicki_lonnon

Want to watch the coverage of the launch live?  Tune in online at, live feed begins 20mins prior to to launch.

Google hangout with the Kourou team

If you missed the google hangout on monday you can watch it here

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Gravity - your questions answered

Want to ask questions about gravity, want to talk to a Nobel prize winning physicist? Well then join the Google hangout with George Smoot and others on Monday 30th November

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The final countdown... Part 3 D-9 and D-8

As a QA there are many exciting and interesting aspects of the campaign that I have to get involved in. Now the spacecraft is encapsulated in the fairing, you could be forgiven for thinking that my job here is done... not so fast!

I also have to act as a witness for the movements of the now fully encapsulated spacecraft (as I have nicknamed it, the egg, or more formally known as the PAC ).

This involves joining the convoy that will move the fairing with the spacecraft inside from the clean room to the Vega launch pad where it will be hoisted up to the top of the Vega rocket.  

Exciting stuff!  The 10km journey is made by road and took approximately 2.5hours, yes SLOW!  It has to be very slow in order to ensure that the fiaring arrives safely.  As this is a hazardous operation, everyone involved has to travel wearing the very fetching bright orange safety overalls which are both chemical and fie retardant to protect us in the event of an accident.  It is also necessary to carry a gas mask with us at all times.

Once at the launch pad, it is time to don hard hats and safety shoes as well ready for the lifting of the fairing from the truck, to the 39.4m platform within the Vega launch tower.  

Not sure orange is really my colour! 

Image Copyright ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2015

LPF is transferred by road to the launch tower.

Image Copyright ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2015
Up into the launch tower...

Image Copyright ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2015

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The final countdown... Part 2 D-10 16th November 2015

After a somewhat brutal alarm awakening at 02:45 this morning, myself and 3 others have made our way in fo a very early start at 04:00 in order to complete the removal of the remaining non-flight items from the spacecraft and to perform what should be, the last ever inspection.

Today is launch day -10, encapsulation day.

The so called "red tag" items are protective covers for the various sensitive equipments mounted to the spacecraft.  We aim to keep these on fo as long as possible and only ever remove them for specific testing or (as now) for flight.  They cover items such as thrusters, protecting them in terms of both cleanliness and also from accidental damage during other activities (such as lifting).  In addition, we also have remove before flight covers on our optical equipments, such as the Sun Sensors and Star Trackers.  

For the last inspection, this is the last opportunity for myself and my colleague to pick up any issues and have them corrected.  

After the inspection, we perform a full "accountability" check of all the various emove before flight/install for flight items.  We have to be absolutely sue that every item that should have been removed has been and every item that had to be installed for flight has been.  All the items then get stored securly until the  spacecraft is successfully commissioned in flight.  

With everything confirmed to have been completed, we are ready to encapsulate the spacecraft within the fairing of the rocket.  This is the last time human eyes will fall upon this spacecraft, going, going, gone!  Now encapsulated, the fairing, will act like a mobile clean room until it is jettisoned around 4 minutes after lift off.  

Image Copyright ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2015

Image Copyright ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut, 2015

Monday, 23 November 2015

LPF in The Guardian

Friday, 20 November 2015

The final countdown... Part 1 D-11 and counting

Here we are, after around 6 weeks in Kourou, we have now entered the so-called combined operations phase which is when the Spacecraft is finally prepared for launch.

Launch day - 11 and we are mating the now fully fuelled spacecraft with the payload adapter of the Vega rocket.  This is the adapter through which we will power the spacecraft during the coming days for check out and during the launch.

You may remember the post from earlier this year titled "the shoe fits"... well that was the so called fit check with this adapter.  Now, we are going to integrate the two for flight.

Tune in again for the developments in the countdown to the launch of Lisa Pathfinder.

Lifting up from the fuelling adapter 
Over she goes...
Safely on the launcher adapter.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Time to fill up the tanks

As the loading of the propellant into the spacecraft propulsion module tanks takes place ready for launch, I caught up with members of the team responsible for undertaking the hazardous task of loading the fuel…
Q: What fuel are we loading into the propulsion module?
A: The LPF PRM has a bi-propellant system which means we have an oxidiser and a fuel.  As with many spacecraft, the oxidiser is NTO (a mix of Nitrogen Oxides) and the fuel is MMH (Mono-methyl Hydrazine). 
Q: Its sounds like a dangerous job, how dangerous is it?
A: This is by far the most dangerous activity that the team face.  The fuel is toxic so we have to take measures to ensure we don’t come into contact with it directly as it can cause chemical burns and anoxia (which is a severe lack of oxygen in your system that in this case could occur if there was a leak in the atmosphere, especially as the oxidiser has a boiling point of approx. 21degC).  The risks are mitigated by the use of special suits which are worn by those undertaking the loading of the propellants.  In addition there are a number of safety features built into the design of the spacecraft to ensure that the oxidiser and the fuel don’t inadvertently meet each other during ground operations.  In addition there is constant monitoring of the level atmosphere in the facility to ensure any potential leaks are quickly detected and contained. 
Q: Tell us more about the SCAPE suit you have to wear – you look like a deep sea diver, or an Astronaut?!
A: SCAPE stands for Self Contained Atmospheric Protection Ensemble. It protects the propellant loading team from coming into contact with hazardous and toxic propellants. It provides a positive pressure inside the suit to ensure no toxic vapours can enter and protects any liquid propellant coming into contact with your skin. Underneath we wear a fetching cotton onesie as the suit itself is basically plastic.  Over the onesie we wear a vest containing our communications equipment.  The suit is finished off with a pair of plastic boots and a helmet.
Q: What is it like working in a SCAPE suit?
A: Working in a SCAPE suit can be very hard work if you have to do a lot of movements, the suits are quite heavy and hence we prepare the facility in advance so minimum effort is required in the suit. We set out all equipment and ensure the area is clear of as many obstructions as possible. These suits are very safe but become very uncomfortable after 5 hours in them. We also have a team in the control room that dictate all commands to the team in the facility; these are then repeated and performed.  In addition, they will often ask us to solve a few brain teasers and puzzles, just to check we are still OK.
Q: What will you do after the fuelling is finished?
A: Relax and have big BBQ for the team!
After the loading activities we have to decontaminate our loading equipment to make it safe for transport back to the UK. Some of this activity is carried out in what is called a Splash suit and breathing apparatus, when we have to disassemble the different parts. We have to flush the system with demineralised water to neutralise the oxidiser and fuel. After this the equipment is purge dried with nitrogen ready for shipment to the UK. This process reduces the ppm (parts per million) level of propellant in the equipment so that it complies with safe levels for transportation. 
The team get ready - first the onesie!
Next the Scape suit
 Checking out the flexibility of the suit...
More flexibility checks!
Time for a team photo!
Ready for action!

Now for the seious part... the fuelling activity begins

The less glamorous part - decontaminating the kit in the chemical and fire proof suit and breathing apparatus

Friday, 6 November 2015

Shropshire to Kourou

Interview with a scientist

For this post, I've been speaking with ESA Project Scientist Dr Paul McNamara... read on to find out more about Paul, his role on LPF and what makes Gravitational Waves so cool!
-          What’s your name?
Dr Paul McNamara
-          What’s your role on LPF?
I’m the LISA Pathfinder Project Scientist based at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Space Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. My role in the project is to lead the scientific aspects of the mission, and to liaise between ESA and the scientific community (universities). The Project Scientist’s role really comes to life after the mission is launched and when we have ensured everything is working as planned. We then start the science operations - the fun part of any project! For LISA Pathfinder this means we will run different experiments each day (for 90 days) with the goal to understand the physics of all the types of disturbances which can push a test mass away from a perfect gravitational free-fall.
-          How long have you been studying gravitational waves? What first got you interested in studying them?
I started studying gravitational waves back in October 1994, when I started my PhD in the Gravitational Waves group at the University of Glasgow. My undergraduate degree (also at Glasgow University) was a joint honours degree in Physics and Astronomy - I loved astronomy, but also wanted to work in experimental physics. The gravitational waves group offered both: theoretical astrophysics of the sources of gravitational waves (black holes & neutron stars), combined with the laboratory development of gravitational wave detectors. At this time, LISA was in the early stages of design - I was lucky to be the first PhD student whose thesis was dedicated to the LISA mission, and have seen the mission change and grow over the last ~20 years.
-          In your opinion, what would be the most exciting part about discovering gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are a direct consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, however, almost 100 years after gravitational waves were first proposed, we have not yet directly detected them! Gravitational waves remain the last major prediction  of general relativity which we have not yet confirmed. Therefore, making a direct detection of gravitational waves will provide a final confirmation that general relativity is the correct theory of gravity.

However, detection is only the start. What I, along with the rest of the gravitational wave community, really want is the astrophysics we can accomplish with this completely new way of observing the universe. We have theories on what we expect to see…however, whenever we open a new window to the Universe (i.e. x-rays), we see things which we do not have theories for. These are the exciting sources of gravitational waves which may allow us to start to better understand the dark side of the Universe.
-          Who is your scientific hero?
Good question. For obvious reasons, there is Einstein. Along with several other physicists at the end of the 19th century, he revolutionised the entire field, and even now, 100 years later, we are still trying to understand the consequences of his gravitational theory.
Also, being an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow, I was surrounded by the work of Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson). My first physics lecture at university was held in the same lecture theatre which Lord Kelvin taught in almost 100 years before - an old room, but bursting with history. You couldn’t help but sit there and think of what it must have been like to be in the presence of such an amazing person.
-          Where did you grow up?  When you were a kid what did you want to be?
I grew up in the North West of Glasgow….very close to the river Kelvin! My father was a TV repair man, and as such I grew up surrounded by electronics, and was forever playing with the circuit boards from old TVs! This gave me an interest in electronics from a very young age, however, at school, electronics was covered under physics. This naturally led to my love for physics. Also, like most people of my age, I loved watching TV programmes such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, as well as movies like Star Wars…I also wanted to flying around space visiting different planets! 
When I applied to university, I planned to study physics and chemistry, however, my academic advisor suggested I take physics and astronomy instead….a life changing decision which I have never regretted, and which has led me to where I am today!
-          How did you end up where you are today?
After my first post-doc, I decided to leave academic life, and took a job in industry, designing opto-electronic sensors. However, I was not cut out for industrial life….my interests lay in science, not in a large engineering company, where the main criteria is how much profit can we make! Luckily for me, a former collaborator in the LISA project had moved to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre as the LISA Project Scientist. He was building a team, and asked me if I was interested in applying to NASA. I jumped at the chance! I was then back where I belonged developing the laser interferometric system for LISA. After three years at NASA, the opportunity arose to return to Europe as the LISA Pathfinder Project Scientist at ESA. Ten years later, I still feel very fortunate to be working at the space agency - where else do you get to have coffee every day with the scientists from all of our missions currently observing the universe, or orbiting the planets of the solar system! 
-          Who in the world would you most like to meet?
JK Rowling! My kids love the Harry Potter books and films…which I have now seen more times than I care to remember! I would love to ask her how she came up with all the details of the alternate world of wizards and muggles. Did she have a plan from the start, or did it grow as the years went by. Are the characters (especially the weird ones, e.g. Mad Eye Moody) based on real people, or only exist in her mind?

Although very far removed from science, I can see similarities with writing a series of novels - when designing a new mission (like LISA or LISA Pathfinder), the science team have to try to think of everything up front….which we always fail at! The final mission which we launch is similar to the one the scientists first proposed, but it has grown as we learn the details that come from building the satellite.
-          What comes next for you after LPF?
As a scientist at ESA, I may be fortunate to work on another mission. This could be either the gravitational wave mission which will be selected for the 3rd large class mission of our science programme, or possibly in a completely different field of astronomy or physics. Personally, I would like to work on a new field of astronomy… is never boring when you’re learning something new.
-       When you’re not studying gravitational waves what do you like doing (hobbies/free time etc)?
When not working on the LISA Pathfinder mission, I spend my time on the golf course. Fortunately, at ESTEC we have a small golf course on site - after a long day of meetings, there is no better way to wind down than a quick nine holes!
When not on the golf course, I like to spend time going for long walks with my family…and the dog. Its a great way to see the Dutch countryside.
However, when back in Scotland, we spend our time in the highlands, baggingMunros…hill walking is one activity we cannot do in the Netherlands!

         -      In one sentence, what would you say to teenagers to encourage them to study          
science & maths? 

Science is not about the equations you learn, it is about learning how to think differently, and how to perceive the world, and universe, around you….and to have fun!

Paul with LPF @ IABG in Munich, August 2015 - Picture Courtesy of ESA & Airbus Defence & Space.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

21st October 2015 - Back to the Future!

It's officially Back to the Future Day!
Today, 21st October 2015, the day super fans of the movie trilogy of the late 1980's have long waited for.  Having been a small child back in 1989 when BTTF2 came out, I remember watching the movies on TV a few years later and re-watching them countless times since (my husband is a massive fan and in fact we always have them recorded on the digi box!)  In fact it was my lovely husband who text me excitedly at 04:30am to remind me of this auspicious date - thanks sweetie, forgot the time difference I think ;-)

Right, so now you're all thinking, what the hec has BTTF got to do with LISA Pathfinder... well the link may no be quite so tenuous as you might think...

Time Travel.  

The main theme of the BTTF movies of course.  Now then as most A level physics students will tell you, time travel to the future is theoretically possible, if you can get up close toward the speed of light, in theory as predicted by Einstein's special theory of relativity you could travel forward in time just like Marty and Doc Brown do in the film when they travel from 1985 to 2015.  But back in time, like travelling from 1985 back to 1955, now thats a little more tricky.  Why, well because to go back in time you need to travel at or beyond the speed of light and as Special Relativity and E=MC^2 tells us, as you get closer to light speed, your mass increases meaing you slow down and need more energy to speed up again.  

So you need a cheat, something that can enable you to manipulate the fabric of space-time to enable you to travel back in time.  Enter Einstein's General Relativity and, you guessed it those gravitational waves that we're hoping LISA Pathfinder will help demonstrate the technology needed to enable us to build a full scale in orbit graviational wave detector.  Einstein's theory, that space and time are not separate but intrinsically linked as space-time.  Gravitational waves are then ripples in space-time caused by the rapid motion of massive objects like colliding Black Holes.  Wormholes theoretically could exists where the curvature of space-time somehow creates a tunnel connecting different regions of space-time that in a flat universe would be very great disances apart.  This could in theory mean it would be possible to travel via a wormhole to an area of space-time that is either very far away in distance, or in time, perhaps even back in time without having to travel at greater than light speed.

So while some of the predictions made in BTTF 2 about 2015 have not quite come to fruition, our knowlegde and understanding of the universe will hopefully soon start to be greatly expanded and if/when gravitational waves are detected in space, science fiction might be a step closer to becoming science fact!  Happy BTTF day all.

Picture credit:

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

LPF feature in Space UK magazine

Monday, 12 October 2015

Business Class anyone?

Well, what an awesome experience... not what most would think of as business class, but something I'm going to call "Cargo Business" :-)

When I first found out that we would were definitely transporting the spacecraft to the launch site by air (there had been talk earlier of shipping by boat) I was very excited indeed.  In my role as the Quality Assurance Engineer for the Spacecraft,  it was kind part of my job to travel with the spacecraft, to ensure that it arrived safely and that throughout the journey everything remained tickety boo!  
Why, some might ask, was I so excited to fly all the way from London to Cayenne on board a Cargo plane... in fact a lot of people even questioned my sanity when they realised how super excited I was by the prospect, "you're mad", "rather you than me", "what no windows, that sounds awful!" were just a few of the comments! 

Well I might be a little mad, but at heart I am a massive plane geek! (Or maybe just a massive geek generally!)  I've always loved planes.  I have fond memories of trips to the RAF Cosford Museum with my grandparents and cousin's as well as attending the air shows as we lived very near two RAF bases (growing up in Telford, nestled between Cosford and Shawbury).  Then of course there is my husband who is a pilot and I love asking him all sorts of questions about what he does.  He's a plane geek too (sorry honey, but you know its true). So you can see that there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity (quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity) to take a ride on one of the worlds largest aircraft!

Enough rambling, you want to know what it was like!

It was a lot more comfortable than I'd been led to believe.  The passenger cabin was a cross between an old 80's passenger aircraft and an 80's train carriage.  The cabin was accessed via a step ladder at the rear of the aircraft.  True there are no real windows to speak of (a couple of very tiny porthole windows in the emergency exit doors) as you might expect for a cargo plane and the interior was of course basic, but all the essentials were there, in a fashion. Our merry little band of volunteers and those whose "job it was" (not that we minded) to travel on this flying juggernaut settled ourselves in the back two rows of the 20 seater cabin, got out our travel pillows, and buckled up for the ride.  

Taking off was kind of surreal, in fact you were ony really aware of being in the air from the noise!  Oh was it noisey on there!!!  If you've ever thought you needed ear plugs on a regular commercial flight, then you would have required ear defenders on this one.  Even with the ear plugs, the noise level was only reduced to "normal" aircraft noise levels.  We quickly adapted to lip reading and hand gestures to communicate with one another.  

After about an hour or two we all felt a little peckish, so a couple of our group went to investigate the boxes of on board catering that had been loaded on for us. Yep, no steward or steardess on this flight, it was all self service ;-) Even the safety briefing, good job its a fairly universal set of instructions, given the safety card... (see below) all in Russian of course!

Food was good, smoked salmon and prawn salad, cheesecake, selection of cheese and biscuits and more bread rolls that you could shake a stick at.  Drinks, well, since we were officially on duty, the rules state that it was a dry flight, but there was plenty of soft drinks, and tea and coffee on tap (of course we had to go out to the little kitchen to make it).  

Probably the most "interesting" thing to note on board was the toilet...  afraid I didn't take a picture, just didn't seem quite right!  The good news, the door was fully lockable and unlike some had tried to convince me prior to the flight, full height (yes people tried to convince me the door was only half height!)  Behind the lockable bathroom door though a bit of a surprise... two toilets, proudly facing one another! That's right, the toilet was a social space!  Luckilly though we all chose to go it alone!  

Landing in the Azores just before 1am, we were only aware we had landed due to the slight change in feel of the vibrations of the aircraft.  Being so huge and with us being so high up, you really didn't know if you were in the air on on the ground.  We stopped off for a bit in Santa Maria, just an hour or so to refuel and being the only aircraft there, we were allowed off the aircraft briefly to stretch our legs.  I also performed my checks on the spacecraft container, making sure the temperature and humidity were still good and the special purge line we have to run for the instrument was still running.  Then it was back on board, time to buckle up again and jet off across the atlantic to Cayenne.  

I have to say, it was probaby one of the most fun and interesting experiences of my life and certainly something I'll never forget, in fact I fully intend to be boring people recounting the story well into my old age!  

Follow the ESA blog

View the official ESA LPF blog here:

In the news again

Popular as ever LPF has made it into BBC news online once again as she left Stevenage bound for Kourou. Read the article here:

Last call for flight VDA1586 to Cayenne...

The time has arrived, LPF is ready to head off on her last journey on Earth. Off accross the big blue pond (more commonly known as the Atlantic) bound for the Launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.    

All aboard the Antonov AN-124.  Two long days of loading up the Spacecraft and her entourage of equipment.  The 8 passengers flying along with her, mostly volunteers (mostly!) are all aboard and settling in for the 13 hour journey.  

The aircraft, one of the largest in the world has a 36.5m x 6.4m x 4m (LxWxH) internal cargo bay and is capable of transported up to 120tonnes of cargo!  The cargo has been loaded using the 4 point on board crane of the aircraft.  

The crew comprises a two sets of 6 man flight crew (2 pilots, 2 flight engineers, 1 radio operator and 1 navigator). Then theres the 8 man technial crew, each responsible for a particular system on the aircraft during the flight from avionics to hydraulics and of course the loading and unloading of cargo.  

With everyone on board and setled in nicely for the ride ahead, we waved cherio to London Stanstead around 21:00 and climbed into the darkness bound south for Santa Maria in the Azores where we would make a brief stop to refuel before crossing the ocean and 4 time zones to arive in Cayenne, French Guiana.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

What's that noise?

One of the final tests to be completed before LISA is ready for Launch is the Acoustic Test.
The aim of this test is to simulate the noise conditions that the spacecraft will experience inside the fairing of the Vega rocket during the Launch. 

To simulate the Launcher noise conditions, the spacecraft is put into the "Reverberation" chamber or Acoustic Noise Facility.  In here, noise at Levels of over 100dB are generated using compressed air and delivered into the chamber via the massive horns.  It's a bit like Standing next to enormous speakers at a nighclub.  The chamber is designed to allow the noise to "reverberate" and the response of the spacecraft is measured using a network of accelerometers which measure the motion of the spacecraft due to the noise. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

LISA in the news...

Watch the latest edition of SPACE from Euronews featuring an extended piece on LISA Pathfinder with a few familiar faces...


"The shoe fits" - Fit check with the launch vehicle

Exciting times for LISA pathfinder as the fit check with the Launch vehicle adaptor is successfully completed. 

This adaptor will act as the flight interface between the spacecraft and the Vega rocket.  The fit check is performed just after the manufacture of the adaptor and six or so months before the launch in order to confirm that the interface is correct and that the harness connects properly with the spacecraft enabling the ground operations team to successfully power and control the spacecraft once inside the rocket on the launch tower.
The full LPF Spacecraft atop the Vega launch vehicle adaptor - Image reproduced here with permission from Airbus Defence & Space Ltd.


The final piece of the jigsaw...

After many years in the making, the beating heart of the LISA Technology Package has arrived...
An exciting time for everyone involved in the Project.  The exterior doesn't give much away regarding the delicate and highly sensitive instrument contained within it including the two solid gold test masses which will be carefully released, controlled and captured in flight. 

The LISA Instrument Core Assembly - Image reproduced here with permission of Airbus Defence & Space Ltd

Installed into the Spacecraft - Image reproduced here with permission of Airbus Defence & Space Ltd

Thursday, 21 May 2015

How cold is it in Space?

How cold is it in Space? 

Well the answer is pretty cold.  With no atmosphere to protect it, the spacecraft will experience an "outside" temperature of around -140degC.  When the sun shines on a surface of the spacecraft it can change the external temperature that the spacecraft sees to around +140degC. 

As you can imagine, these changes in temperature aren't great for electronics on board the spacecraft which generally prefer to be kept at a nice ambient temperature of around 22degC.  A bit like a mobile phone, if the spacecraft gets too cold, the systems onboard will eventually begin to fail.  Equally the same will happen if they become too hot. 

So, how can ambient temperature be maintained out in the hostile space environment?

The answer is with a thermal control system.

A thermal control system can consist of two main elements:
- passive control elements which make use of the environment and,
- active control elements which actively seek to change the spacecraft internal environment.

The usual ways of transporting energy (in this case heat) around are:
- Conduction
- Convection
- Radiation
In space we can generally only harness two of these three physical phenomena. Due to the vaccum conditions, convection is not possible in a space environment, unless a specific fluid environment to support convection is located within the spacecraft.

Examples of active elements are things like heaters.  LPF has a great number of heaters all over it.  Most are fitted to electronic units in order to control their temperature and some are also fitted to the actual structure of the spacecraft.  Each heater can be turned on and off by sending a command to it to switch it on and off to acheive the desired temperature.  In addition some spacecraft also essentially have their own central heating system. Using a series of pipes filled with a voltaile substance which easilly changes state from liquid to gas, heat can be transported around the spacecraft via convection currents, moving the warmth from hotter areas to cooler ones.  

Passive elements include items such as blankets or painted finishes.  Blankets are wrapped around particular units and more routinely, the outside of the spacecraft is covered by them - they're the shiny gold foil you see in the photograph below.  These work by insulating the spacecraft from the cold space environment.  On the Picture below you can also see some areas of white uncovered by blankets, these are painted areas, which use Special paint finishes to provide a reflective surface such that when the sun shines on this surface the radiation is reflected away.  This can be used to make sure that certain parts of the spacecraft don't get too hot when facing direct sunlight. 

LPF inside the TVAC chamber
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence & Space Ltd and reproduced here with permission

The types of finishes and blankets used vary depending on the specific aspects of the Space Mission.  Factors such as the orbit, the size of the spacecraft and the type of equipment onboard all Impact on the overall thermal system design.

Creating Space, on Earth...

The usual engineering process of design, build, and test applies to a spacecraft the same as it applies to a car or aircraft.  However, unlike a car or an aircraft, testing the item you've built in a realistic and representative environment is a little bit more tricky, after all, to do such a test, we literally need to recreate Space here on Earth!

How do you create Space on Earth?

To do this we use something called a Thermal Vacuum chamber.  This device once the spacecraft is sealed inside of it, is first used to create a vacuum environment by evacuating all of the air from the chamber.  For our recent test, we "pumped down" the chamber to around 1x10-6mbar of pressure (recall that atmospheric pressure is 1bar, so this is an air pressure of 0.0000000001bar!) once this vacuum condition is reached, the chamber is cooled to a chilly -140deg using liquid nitrogen.  Prior to cooling the chamber, the spacecraft is powered on and the test team begin to activate the various heaters and monitor the temperatures of all the units to ensure they remain within their operating limits. 

The TVAC (Thermal Vacuum test) was the first test that LISA Pathfinder under went on arrival in Germany.

LPF Installed in the TVAC Chamber ahead of the test
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission

LPF fully installed in the TVAC chamber
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission

One final look before closing the door for the 8 day test
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission

The door is closed and Space Simulation can begin
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission

LPF is removed from the chamber 8 days later following the test, time for a Team photoshoot!
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission

Monday, 27 April 2015

The journey begins... Preparing to leave Stevenage

The final few weeks before heading out to Munich with LISA Pathfinder were a flurry of activity. 

As the Quality Assurance engineer for the spacecraft, I had my hands full juggling all the different activities that needed my support and also completing the final inspections on the spacecraft before it was shipped.

Final Inspection
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission.

At the same time as the team were preparing the spacecraft, they were also busy preparing all of the supporting equipment required to enable the running of tests while in Germany to proove that the spacecraft works as intended.

Moving all the test equipment out for packing
Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission.

An exciting day was had by all on the day we mated the spacecraft and the propulsion module (thats what we call it when we put the two halves of the spacecraft together) even the press turned up to watch!  Click on the video below to see what happened.

Press coverage of the event can be accessed via the following links: )

Finally, after a long few weeks, we were ready to leave, the spacecraft safely tucked up inside the transport container.

Safely installed into the container.  Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission.
End of a long day!  Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission.

Time to put the lid on – bye LPF, see you in Germany!  Pictures are property of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, reproduced here with permission.