Monday, February 23, 2009

A Llanito in Space!

I bumped into my old friend John Borda today. John is a freelance web designer these days, based not too far from me in the Newmarket area. In conversation, as we caught up with each other, he mused about how close it came for a Llanito to be 'in space'!

He told me how he had been reading through the news the other day, about the European Space Agency's (ESA) busy programme for the coming year when he came across the image of a familiar-looking satellite. John said, "it’s not as if it looks like any other satellite. It’s actually quite unusual; a very compact 'arrow-like' shape, with small fins on it".

It turns out, that over ten years ago, John was working for a scientific research firm, Oxford Instruments, testing superconducting materials, on a contract for ESA.

"While I can’t claim to be the 'brains' behind them", John said, "I was testing these materials, to see if they could be made into more sensitive devices, more reliably".

One of these devices is known as a 'SQUID' (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). Marvelling at this wonderful piece of engineering science, he excitedly explained that this is apparently, "the most sensitive magnetic field detector known to man"!

To illustrate, he recalled how they could sense a bunch of keys being jangled at the other end of their lab and were impossible to test during rush-hour because of all the 'noise' of the 'metal' cars moving outside!. (It appears that the lab later moved as far away from a major road as it could!).

To return to the 'Llanito in Space' possibility, he told me these are the very detectors at the heart of the GOCE satellite which is due to be launched on 16th March 2009.

Strategically placed around a 'jumping-jack' shaped piece of niobium, they can detect tiny movements in all three dimensions as the satellite passes low over the Earth. These will allow the satellite to map tiny variations in the gravity field over the planet and provide highly detailed data about the Earth, including sea levels, potential mineral deposits and the like.

John remembers putting together an annual series of proposals about this satellite, including ground test rigs and other aspects of its design.

However, he said, "my main contribution was to speed up the ability to change the many drafts it went through".

"As for the first version I was using a scalpel and several rolls of Scotch tape to 'cut and paste' the proposal and it’s many complex diagrams together... literally. No Photoshop back then!"

The next version was entirely electronic, apparently, with the exception of the front cover, an artist’s impression of the satellite, which he didn’t have in electronic form.

"We didn’t have a scanner in the office, but we did have a fax, so I faxed it to my computer modem, and was thus able to use the image!"

Sadly, said John, the nature of the ESA contract changed to "something beyond my skills", so he was out of a job. But that image stayed with him.

"It was, and still is, an unusual shape for a satellite. This is because it orbits so low it 'grazes' the atmosphere, so it needs to be streamlined, and to minimise any vibrations that might be caused by the usual solar panel 'wings', which would interfere with the sensitive gravity detector."

In a wistful tone, John concluded:

"I would have been one of a 'cast of thousands' involved in getting this satellite launched later this year, all being well. But, still, over a decade later, it will be good to see it fly!"

ESA's GOCE Mission

ESA's GOCE mission is dedicated to measuring the Earth's gravity field and modelling the 'geoid' with unprecedented accuracy and spatial resolution.

GOCE is the first in a series of research missions known as Earth Explorers. Driven by the needs of the scientific community, Earth Explorers will provide the data to help understand critical Earth system variables and put Europe in pole position on Earth observation in the coming years.

This video gives an excellent explanation of what the GOCE mission is all about:

GOCE is due for launch in March 2009 on a Russian 'Rockot' vehicle, a converted SS-19 Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia.

All the data collected by GOCE will go towards creating a global gravity-field map with a level of accuracy never before available.

ESA has developed an internet interface that will make these data easily and quickly available to scientists and researchers.