Space Mission: the European Space Agency's Summer School

2 Aug 2018

Lucy (front left, seated) at the Alpbach Summer School

If you could design a real-life space mission, where would you go? Lucy Kissick, a second-year PhD student at Teddy Hall studying Martian Geochemistry, was faced with just this question when she took part in the Alpbach Summer School, hosted by the European Space Agency (ESA) in Austria. Here, she gives us an account of her recent experience.

For 10 days in July I left the spires of Oxford and headed into the depths of the Austrian Alps to an exquisitely quaint little village, one which requires two planes, one train, and two buses to reach. With a population of 2600, and with traditional geranium-lined wooden houses climbing up the valley slopes, Alpbach is hardly the most obvious place for the European Space Agency to conduct its business.

But for 41 years, students from across Europe have been descending upon this village for its annual summer school, and this year I was one of 64 selected to attend. The school’s aim is, in just 10 days, to teach us how to conceive, design, and ultimately present the concept of a space mission. The 64 participants ranged from Bachelor level to PhD and included 17 nationalities, with three other Britons all from different institutions. Both engineers and scientists can apply: these two groups must work together to understand why and where we wish to explore (scientists) and how exactly we intend to do it (engineers).

Alpbach village and surrounding countryside

The 10 days I spent in Alpbach felt like months. The programme was extremely intensive: on most days there were lectures and talks by researchers and space agency officials from across Europe, including both the present and former ESA Directory General. Every other waking hour, from 9am to – at earliest – 11pm, was mission planning. Split into four teams, we had 10 days to come up with a viable and desirable mission, and this year’s theme was ‘sample return from small bodies’. This meant comets, asteroids, or (if you wanted to push your luck, as my team did), the not-so-small planetesimals in the Asteroid Belt.

My team chose one such planetesimal: Ceres. At almost a thousand kilometres across, Ceres is the largest object in the Asteroid Belt, accounting for around a third of this region’s total mass. It is so large, in fact, that when NASA’s Dawn spacecraft examined its surface from orbit from 2015 onwards, it discovered several exceptionally bright spots in a crater named Occator. These turned out to be salts erupted from a water-rich reservoir of sorts, deep below the surface. Could Ceres contain liquid water even today? To my team this was definitely worth a closer look. Entirely from scratch we designed the Calathus mission to return a sample of these salts from Ceres to Earth. A ‘calathus’, so I learned, was a basked used by the goddess of agriculture Ceres to carry the harvest to her people, and seemed a fitting name for a vessel to carry such precious material.

Lucy and her team giving their presentation

10 days passed. 10 days of sleep deprivation, of excellent Austrian food, of learning strange words like ‘traceability matrix’ (how a spacecraft’s every design can be traces directly back to its scientific objectives). I learned engineering know-how I had never previously understood, like why we used xenon as a propellant, or why we required a Mars gravity assist. And I learned so much about Ceres that I came to forget that my planet of study here in Oxford is actually Mars. We wrote a 10-page report on the mission but there was one last task reserved for day 10: giving a final, one-hour presentation to the hundred-odd students, tutors and officials present at the summer school.

I spoke for half of my team’s allotted time on the science case for Ceres: where this small body is, why it is so interesting, and why we urgently require a returned sample. Two engineers in my team then discussed the technical case: how we would reach Ceres, how the samples would be obtained and safely returned to Earth. We were all overjoyed by how well it went, and at dinner that night our team was honoured with two prizes: best technical case for the engineers, and best presentation. To our further delight, our mission was also selected for further development in November at the ESA Acadamy in Belgium. Here twenty Alpbach students will be later selected to develop Calathus to a level where it could be seriously considered by ESA for a real mission.

Lucy celebrating with her team

I have applied for November and sincerely hope I can continue working on our Calathus mission. The Alpbach Summer School taught me how space missions work, how scientists and engineers cooperate to make space exploration a reality, but most of all it taught me extreme respect for everyone involved in these missions. The hours we laboured, the effort we maintained, the task we completed – these are but shadows of real space missions that span decades even before flight. Thanks to Alpbach, I now understand how difficult a career in spaceflight would be, but I can also imagine how intensely fulfilling a life it could offer.

For this reason, I would encourage any student interested in space exploration to apply to the Alpbach Summer School, and I am extremely grateful for my short time in that quaint little village.

More information about the project can be found on the Alpbach Summer School website and on Lucy Kissick’s website.

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