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.