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Final destination: space

Frances Wray describes how she turned childhood dreams about travelling to Mars into a career designing and testing components for space missions.

I always wanted to work in the space industry. Initially, my goals were perhaps not so realistic: my childhood ambition was to become the first hairdresser on Mars. But I grew up not far from QinetiQ’s offices in Farnborough, UK, and when I was 15, I discovered that they had a space department. I e-mailed an employee there, hoping to get an opportunity to visit, even just for a day, to observe what they did. Instead, I got to spend a whole week in the summer of 2008 with QinetiQ’s Space UK team, performing a “fit check” – ensuring that the parts work together in a single assembly – on some spacecraft components that will soon be on their way to Mercury. I loved it, and I knew I could see myself working in the industry – I just had to get there.

Fast-forward to my third year at the University of Manchester, UK, where I studied physics with astrophysics. After noticing that QinetiQ was recruiting a summer intern, I applied online, attended the interview and was soon working within the space department at Farnborough. In a relatively short period of time, I gained a huge amount of experience, and I was thrilled when I was offered a graduate placement at the end of the internship.

Space hardware

I have now been at QinetiQ for more than two years and I’ve moved on to a permanent role as a product assurance engineer. My day-to-day work involves making sure the hardware I work on is designed, manufactured and tested to the correct standards. The space industry has a lot of standards that must be complied with – 124 of them for European Space Agency (ESA) projects alone – and they cover everything you can think of, including how to test new parts and handle anomalies.

My role also has a customer-facing element, which introduces variety and means that I am always learning new things – I need to know what I’m talking about when I speak to clients. There’s some travel involved, too. One day I may be in Farnborough holding a meeting to ensure our team is prepared for a test campaign, while the next I may be at the ESA integration facilities in the Netherlands overseeing work being performed on our hardware at system level.

I work mainly on electric propulsion systems – specifically, the four T6 ion engines for the BepiColombo mission to Mercury (a joint project between ESA and the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA). These engines use electric and magnetic fields to accelerate ions, and they produce an amount of thrust equivalent to the weight of a £2 coin. That might not sound like much, but in the emptiness of space, it’s enough to manoeuvre a four-tonne craft.

Technologies like these need to be rigorously tested before they can be put into practice, and my first test campaign was an 8000-hour endurance test on a T6 ion engine. This test campaign involves running the T6 ion engine in a large vacuum chamber at nominal thrust levels. The engine runs overnight and software monitors the facility to ensure that the test is halted if anything anomalous occurs (so, thankfully, our test engineers do not need to work overnight). In some ways, my first test campaign was like being thrown into the deep end, but what better way is there to develop an understanding of the operation of the thrusters? Over time, experience and training have taught me what to look for when inspecting flight hardware. Examples include understanding pass/fail criteria for solder joints and electrical cable connections, and also looking for cracks in materials such as ceramics. Faults like these could result in mission failure if they go unnoticed.

Building on knowledge

Because my focus at university was on observational astrophysics and not engineering, I have had to adapt what I know in order to apply it in the engineering environment. I also had to go through a fairly steep learning curve to understand the intricacies of our design and the test facilities at Farnborough. However, I’ve found that being thrown into situations that require new knowledge, guided by experienced colleagues, is the best way to learn.

Although I’ve had to adapt my physics knowledge to a new environment, it is incredible how widely applicable it has been. Our two main products at QinetiQ Space are electric propulsion systems and communication systems, and working on them uses very different aspects of my physics background. I remember sitting in my fourth-year lectures at Manchester and identifying topics that I knew would be applicable to my job once I’d graduated. I haven’t yet had the chance to apply everything I learnt (and in some cases, maybe I never will), but it is really rewarding to see my physics knowledge helping me to understand how and why the technology is operating the way it is.

Another remarkable thing is the skills I’ve continued to develop around the foundation of my physics knowledge. My communication skills, for example, have developed immensely since I joined QinetiQ, thanks to working with both customers and colleagues. I have also participated in many STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) outreach activities with local schools, which has taught me to adapt my communication style to convey information to people without a strong physics or engineering background.

As part of the British astronaut Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station early in 2016, QinetiQ was involved in supporting the amateur radio (ARISS) contacts between schools and Peake while he was in space. That meant I was part of a team of local space industry experts that visited schools and demonstrated some of the technology behind the mission. The STEM initiative is important to me as I’ve seen, first hand, the value of encouraging young people – regardless of their background, gender and abilities – into STEM-based careers.

If you are a physics student interested in going into the engineering industry, I recommend you brace yourself for the variety of options a graduate role will bring. You may already know exactly which field you wish to specialize in, but if you don’t, many engineering companies will offer you a range of opportunities in different types of roles (QinetiQ is great at encouraging this). My main piece of advice, however, is to find a job you are passionate about – a job that others will envy simply because you struggle to say a bad word about it. Ultimately, my favourite part is knowing that space is the final destination of what we are manufacturing and testing. Knowing that my work will help shed light on some of the great “unknowns” of our universe is extremely rewarding – perhaps even more so than hairdressing on Mars.

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