Space, UK Space Industry

So you want to work in the space industry: my work experience!

If you read my post about the UK space industry, you’ll know that it’s dominated by small-medium sized companies, with many focussed on small satellites.

One of these companies is In Space Missions, and I was lucky enough to get to (virtually) spend 3 days with them last month doing some work experience! It was a really valuable experience as I learnt so much about how the space industry works and the different kind of roles there are. I attended various meetings, and although they were often full of acronyms I didn’t understand, it was still good to sit in and get an idea of how projects were organised. People were really supportive, answering questions I had and explaining any acronyms, just being really welcoming!

Developing New Space and "Newspace" Missions | In-Space Missions

The UK may not have a large organisation like NASA, a go to organisation to find work experience, but that doesn’t mean finding it is impossible- in fact, it may end up being more personalised and you will be able to make incredible connections with people in the industry!

Here’s what my week looked like:

On my first day I worked with a new software which they use to interact with their clients and helped run some test scripts to check it all worked. I also got to add my suggestions where things needed changing, and these were well received which was a relief as it meant I was doing it right! The next day I was able to attend a company wide training session on this software, and it was cool seeing how the parts I helped to test were used within the larger framework.

Another more mundane task I did was downloading the ECSS industry standards they need to follow and organising them into files. This gave an insight into all the different things they have to consider when launching a satellite. It was nice to know that a task I completed would actually be used in the company. One that I found interesting was about Human factors that must be considered when preparing for crewed missions.

As well as technical bits, one of my tasks was to help with the company’s outreach program. They are beginning a partnership with a local school, so to help them prepare for that, I researched what the school, and others in the area, already offer as part of their careers program, before presenting my ideas for their careers outreach. I was able to offer advice from my own experience of careers education. I am looking forward to helping with their outreach program when I (hopefully) return post-lockdown, so I can use the skills I have gained from my blog and YouTube to help them!

The most exciting task I did was learning how to use the satellite modelling software STK. I started my second morning reading about the different types of orbit and why they might be used, then after my meeting with my mentor, I first went through the basic tutorials, then applied information I gathered from meetings and data I had been given to model the orbit of one of their future satellites, and then find when the satellite could be accessed by their ground stations for communications. I managed to model the orbit fairly successfully, but the access times need some work as they don’t quite match up with what we expected, which is something to work on next time! While I can’t say much about that specific project, I can tell you how I have used the skills I learnt in the work experience to make a project of my own…

Learning to use STK coincided with the thrilling landing of the Perseverance rover, so whilst watching the NASA livestream during the build up to the “7 minutes of terror”, I decided to use the new skills I’d learnt to model the orbits of not earth-orbiting satellites, but those orbiting Mars! I chose to start with the UAE’s hope mission and decided to model the orbit it is currently in, the highly elliptical insertion orbit, and its future science orbit. Like much of science, it was not as straightforward as I first thought. The first problem I ran to was that I couldn’t actually get the satellites to orbit mars. This turned out to simply be a result of me not knowing the program well enough, so I hadn’t spotted the right setting to set the central body as Mars. After a lot of exploring, I finally found it, and now I’m excited to try model orbits around different solar system objects, as there is a catalogue of planets, moons and asteroids to choose from! 

The second problem was that my satellite trajectories didn’t actually ‘orbit’ the planet- my model showed them cutting *through* the earth (this was before I got them to show on the Mars model), which obviously isn’t possible in real life as they would just crash. I originally put it down to the fact earth is bigger than mars, but the issue remained when I solved the central body problem. After checking over all my settings- and thinking about everything I knew about orbits and planets- I realised that the data I found for Hope’s orbital characteristics were based on altitude, whereas the formulae I used to turn the data into information on the semi-major axis and eccentricity required the apoareon and periareon to be measured not from the surface, but from the centre of the planet.

I really enjoyed the process of seeing that the model wasn’t quite right, and then trying to figure out how to make it work- the extra effort I had to put in made it so much more satisfying (than just following a tutorial) when I finally pressed apply and it looked like a real orbit!  I loved being able to press play and watch the satellites in orbit, and how they follow Kepler’s second law and speed up as they get closer to the planet! It was one of those things I knew in theory, but it was cool to see it in (sort of) real life.

I have since gone on to get data (mainly from Wikipedia and space agency websites, so easily accessible to anyone if you are interested, just google the name of the mission) from all the successful Mars orbiters and have made a fairly accurate model of the satellites orbiting mars! It isn’t perfect, as I couldn’t find any info on the timing of each satellite, but their paths should be accurate, and that is the main goal I was trying to achieve. Getting the timing right is something I would like to work on, so maybe that could be something I learn next time!

I also plan on adding the locations of the various rovers and landers and computing the access times for when the satellites could be visible/above the rovers.

Finally, I collated the work that I had done over the 3 days into a PowerPoint, which I presented during the company’s daily catch up/coffee break meeting. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I was really grateful for the opportunity, and that people showed up to listen! I can’t wait to go on-site when the pandemic allows, as I will get to interact with more of the staff and learn about how they got into the space industry (and why!), see what a normal day would look like, and see how actual satellites are made! Thank you so much to In-Space for having me, and to Susan for organising it all during such a busy time.

Have you done any cool work experience lately? Tell me about it in the comments! And don’t worry if you are struggling, my next post will be all my top tips for finding work experience, and making the most of it when you are there!

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