By Byron Perry
In this interview we talk to Professor Lucy Berthoud, a Professor of Space Engineering at Bristol University in the United Kingdom. We talk about her work on many exciting projects, her thoughts on the possibility of life on Mars, and her advice for teenagers interested in STEM.
Note: This interview was conducted online due to the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I am the Professor of Space Systems Engineering at the University of Bristol. Well actually, I have two jobs, not only do I teach at the University and run many space related activities, but I also work at a space systems manufacturer in Bristol called Thales Alenia Space.
What are some of the research and projects you are currently involved in?
That depends on the job, but some of the highlights are that we are building a small satellite called a cubesat at the University of Bristol that will be a volcano monitoring satellite, and we’re hoping to have it launched next year, that’s a highlight. I’ve also been working with two artists who want to build a Martian house in the middle of Bristol. Along with other colleagues I have been advising them, and offering technical support to them and to the architects drawing up the plans, so we’re very excited about that. That will reach completion in 2022.
For Thales Alenia Space I am involved in several projects. This includes one to put a constellation of satellites in very low Earth orbit, to provide global 5G direct to handset telecommunications. That’s a contract for the European Space Agency. Another contract for the European Space Agency involves looking at what we call ‘threat detection and monitoring’ by satellites, and how we can use satellite data to help first responders with a threat like a big chemical spill.
What are your thoughts on the big changes happening in spaceflight?
For me it’s a very exciting time to be in the space industry. It’s very exciting for the UK, there is so much going on including our new spaceport plans. I hope that all this activity will promote to young people the idea that they can really be involved in the space industry, that there is room for them whatever they do, that there will be some really exciting jobs, some of which do not even exist yet. I’m certainly seeing a big uptick in interest from my students, I used to have a small percentage of my Aerospace students who were interested in space, well now a majority are interested in space, so that’s really exciting. We’re constantly recruiting people at the university to fulfill this student interest.
What advice would you give to a young person thinking of pursuing a career in space?
Work hard at school. There are lots of avenues into space, but one of the easiest is through engineering, physics and maths, STEM subjects. You can go in through medicine or biology but the majority of jobs currently involve computer science, data science, geography, physics, maths and chemistry. All of those areas. We have what we call the upstream and the downstream in space. Upstream is what I work in, that’s building the hardware. Then there is the downstream that is analysing the satellite data and requires all sorts of qualifications. Computer science, data handling, machine learning, image processing, AI. All of this is very important for the analysis of satellite data. In terms of what advice I would give, I would say work hard, and I would say to look at all possibilities. I would say that there is not just the university route, also consider the apprenticeship technician route, as we are still short of those jobs as well. I would say to distinguish yourself from the crowd, anything that shows your passion, that you have particular skills., that you are open to new things, all of these factors are very helpful.
You have been involved in planning Mars Sample Return Missions, what are some of the challenges in this regard?
There are a lot of challenges. One of the exciting things with Mars sample return is that we have not brought back any samples with the possibility of life, with a Mars sample there would be the possibility of life. Recently Hayabusa 2 returned samples of an asteroid, the Chang’e 5 mission has brought samples back from the Moon. So there are some quite recent sample return missions, but none have had the possibility of life. So one of the challenges is thinking, not only that we do not contaminate the sample, but how do we ensure that the sample does not contaminate the Earth. So that is one of the big challenges. Another challenge is landing it, and that whole sequence of the mission is very complex. We have done it before, but it's particularly challenging on a body with gravity. So if we are going somewhere like an asteroid, then getting it back off the asteroid is not particularly challenging as its gravity is relatively low. Getting it back off the surface of Mars on the other hand, is a significant challenge one would have to put a small rocket on the surface of Mars, in order to get a sample off the planet. That would be integral for the success of a Mars Sample Return Mission.
What are your thoughts on life on Mars, past or present?
If there is standing water, then that is the best chance for life to evolve. From the evidence it is unlikely, at the present, that there is liquid water on the surface of Mars. Our best chance for life on Mars is for life in the subsurface (underground) of Mars, and it has been quite exciting to see that there is quite likely to be permafrost at the poles of Mars. This could mean there are subsurface caves, then there is the possibility that there are aquifers (water bearing rock) in those caves. Quite a few of my colleagues think there is a possibility of finding extinct life on the surface of Mars, that is fossils and I think that is what they are looking for. If we want to find extant (still living at the present) life on Mars, then the subsurface is the most likely possibility.
And I suppose that must be very difficult at the present, to actually reach those subsurface aquifers, if they exist?
We do have moles, and penetrating drills that can go down, they’ve just given up on a mole on the NASA probe INSIGHT. And that was just going down a metre, let alone trying to reach caves which would be a lot deeper than that.
Any final things to say?
Aim high, work hard and don’t give up. What fascinated me with space was the exploring nature of it, doing something cutting edge and new, and on the edge of what is possible. I really like being a pioneer, but I am very aware that not everyone is an explorer, and we’ll need people on our Moon base and Mars base to do all the normal jobs we have on Earth, to make life there comfortable.
Thank you very much for giving up your time to take part in this interview Professor Berthoud.