Since joining RAL Space in the late 1980s, Chris has been part of three decades of science and innovation. Starting as an early career scientist, through to project scientist, Head of Earth Observation and Atmospheric Science, and finally, since 2015, as Director. Here he reflects on his time at RAL Space.
4 minute read
My first interaction with RAL Space was when I was a student.
I came here on an open day in the early 1980s while I was studying for a DPhil in atmospheric physics, and I was working in a group at Oxford University that was building space instruments observing atmospheric chemistry. RAL Space were helping provide the project management and some engineering expertise to support Oxford's instruments for their instruments, so that's when I first came here – for various meetings and seminars.
One of my examiners when I finished my DPhil was John Harries, who at the time, was Head of Earth Observation at RAL Space. Through John, I got a year-long position for Physical Chemistry in Cambridge but at RAL working on the same things that I'd been working on during my DPhil. After that year was up, I applied for and got a permanent job at RAL but started in a different role in the Earth observation division and was immediately put onto the project for a climate monitoring instrument called the Along Track Scanning Radiometer (ATSR).
The thing that's kept me here all this time is the variety of work we do.
I worked on the ATSR series of instruments for a number of years before we started working on a study to design what would become its successor – the Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) now on Sentinel-3.
But other than this project, I've done everything from being involved in bits of hardware, through to computer programming, writing data analysis, running the division's computer systems, and helping design new spacecraft instruments – and it's all been really interesting and challenging.
Being at RAL Space is great because we're at the centre of a lot of things. Various bits of RAL Space have very different roles, and I'm lucky to have been involved with all of them throughout my career.
Seeing the launch of ERS-1 was one of my most memorable moments.
The ATSR instruments are a series of Earth observation instruments that measure sea-surface temperature from space. The first one was launched on the first European Remote Sensing satellite (ERS-1) in 1991. Remotely watching the launch and getting back the first datasets from the mission was one of my most memorable moments at RAL Space.
On the other hand, one of my worst moments was when we got the phone call to say that the scanning mirror had stopped working on ATSR-2, which launched on ERS-2 in 1995. However, we kept prodding at it with a series of commands, and eventually the mirror started working again! That was very satisfying and turned out to be one of my good memories in the end.
Another thing that I've been really proud of is the National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF), of course. The idea for the NSTF started in about 2015 or 2016, and it was a lot of work to get it going, but thanks to the groundwork of the then business development director of STFC, by the time we got round to asking for the money everyone was already buying into the concept. We've met some challenges since then, including those around the Covid-19 pandemic, but it will be really exciting to see the facility up and running.
When I first started working in the sector, most companies were relatively small and there were a lot of them.
They each had their own speciality, such as building computer support equipment, bits of electronics, metalware, structure, things like that. Over time I think these smaller companies have been superseded in a way by the bigger “industrial giants"; we have to learn to work with that and play it to our strengths.
We needed to carve out a niche, and our niche at RAL Space is doing the difficult, important, and novel things. I think that's when RAL Space does its best: when we're doing something new, hard, and exciting.
The industrialisation of the sector has its benefits – we have far more information about the Earth than we have ever had because of these industrially-produced satellites, and at the core of these missions are teams of scientists, engineers, and technicians from smaller organisations, like our own. They work collectively to find solutions to study the really difficult and interesting science and technical problems.
I didn't get into space because I have a passion for space.
I'm not really interested in space for the sake of space. If anything, I'm more interested in what happens on Earth. I got into space because I was an atmospheric scientist, and the tool we were using was an instrument that happened to be in space. I enjoy space for what you can do with it, so I really like it when people ask why we're interested in it.
It affects so many parts of our daily lives, from weather forecasting to location services on your car and mobile phone. So when people ask me who the real users of our data are, I say “actually, each and every one of you". And they look at me like I'm an alien, until I point out that data produced by RAL Space sensors was used in generating the weather forecast they had likely used that morning!
We do some incredible things at RAL Space, and we do take it for granted sometimes. I find it difficult when we go on holiday and somebody asks what I do, and I say "well, we make things that go into space. We've got things on comets, we've got things on planets, we've got things flying around the Earth, and that's normal to us!"
One of the things that I've found most rewarding about my career has been the real buzz from the science that we get.
For example, ATSR proved what we already knew – or thought we knew – which was that ocean temperatures were rising over time. We made measurements that were good enough to prove that.
Other projects that I'm excited about include the CubeMAP (also known as ESP-MACCS) constellation. These nanosatellites will be looking at processes in the troposphere and the stratosphere, which is part of our climate system that isn't well understood. CubeMAP is designed to look at these mechanisms using some very high-resolution spectroscopy with some new technology that we've developed in-house. It's going to be tackling some really important science using some very clever technology.
I'm also excited for the future of the JASMIN data intensive supercomputer, based at the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA) – its great that we've been able to build and utilise these scientific computing capabilities for environmental scientists to access the data they need to answer some of the most pressing questions of our time.
And obviously, I'm looking forward to see the follow-ons from ATSR and SLSTR.
If I thought something was interesting, I did it.
I think that's what you must do. If someone asked me for my advice in getting into the space sector, it would just be to look for where the interesting science and technology is, and to keep true to the interesting problems.
Apart from that, go with the flow and enjoy it. I can't say I planned my career, I just took opportunities when they came. Like I said before, I didn't get into space because I was interested in space. Space for me is a more of a tool, and I'm very interested in the data we can get from it.
But throughout my career, the main thing I'm grateful for has to be the people I've met and worked alongside. I've got the most incredible team, and we get to work with a brilliant community every day.