BSc (Hons) Mechanical Design and Manufacture
Now a University of Plymouth alumni, I recently completed my BSc in Mechanical Design and Manufacture with a 14-month industry placement at Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd (GES), between my second and third year of University. I was born in Cornwall and have lived here my whole life. I grew up in Camelford where I went to primary and secondary school followed by Truro College to do two BTEC extended diplomas in Forensic Science and Engineering. I have a passion for anything to do with space and learning how things work. This passion led me to study engineering, at the same time, starting a quest to merge the two passions into a career. Thankfully, I found my role at Goonhilly.
When I started University, I never thought I would fulfill my ambition of working in the space industry, especially in Cornwall. It’s the perfect combination. I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather work and live.
As a child, I was always fascinated by all things space and had the childhood dream of working in anything space-related. Through hard work and pushing myself, I finally made that dream come true. Doing a placement year was the best decision I ever made, one that has changed my life and given me a career to be proud of. Now I get to communicate with spacecraft around other planets.
I work at Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, the world's most famous satellite communications company and home to the world's first and only commercial deep-space antenna.
My main role is in Deep space communications, using the world's first and only commercial deep space communications antenna, called GHY-6. Our team is the world's only deep-space operator doing this commercially, outside of a government-owned Deep Space Network (DSN).
Sometimes I have to take a step back to remind myself that at the other end of this antenna I’m controlling a spacecraft around Mars or another spacecraft in deep space, it’s literally out of this world.While the antenna is entirely owned and operated by GES, we are part of the European Space Agencies augmented deep space network and currently offer services to ESA to downlink from their spacecraft and uplink commands, GHY-6 is also compatible with NASA’s deep space network and their spacecraft as well as most commercial deep-space spacecraft.
I’m also involved in a host of projects across the company which involve mechanical or computer-aided design. My focus involves designing parts used on our antennas and helping to maintain them. One project I am currently working on, which continues a theme from my University dissertation, is to design a cryogenically cooled receiver for our GHY-6 antenna to further improve its already impressive signal-to-noise ratio. This is achieved by cooling the low noise amplifier to -253 degrees Celsius in a vacuum to reduce the electrical noise in the components and allow a cleaner signal to be received.
Knowing my University dissertation has practical applications in a real-world environment is extremely rewarding and exciting. Hopefully, working with our suppliers, we will deploy further similar designs across antennas at Goonhilly, as well as future antennas we build around the world. With this design in place, it will further enhance the capabilities of our GHY-6 antenna enabling us to receive signals from spacecraft further away or satellites with smaller transmitters.
Houston, we don't have a problem
Working in deep space communications can be both really exciting and interesting but daunting as it's quite a steep learning curve to operate the antenna. This is a role that you can’t learn at a university or currently, through any other job outside of space agencies such as NASA and ESA.
It's a job where you can’t really make mistakes, with the consequences of making a serious mistake having the potential to impact a space mission.
The role requires being methodical in following procedures to configure the antenna to the way our customers require as well as being good at calmly solving problems under pressure. Often, any issues during a mission are time-critical where we have minutes to resolve if the pass is to be a success. This requires exceptional teamwork from the Operations team at GES and the second line support engineers at our Farnborough office.
No space for error
A typical day might involve an operational mission for the European Space Agency, downlinking and uplinking to their Mars Express spacecraft or to ESA’s Integral spacecraft. Ensuring the station is configured correctly is critical. Also allowing them to send commands through our dish to their spacecraft. If one setting is wrong, it could result in the commands not reaching the spacecraft, or the spacecraft not being able to decode the signal.
Goonhilly is a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new, with a 3,000-year-old standing stone woven in the backdrop of satellite antennas pointing to space, towering above the heathland. It’s a place steeped in history but with an even more exciting future ahead of it.
A universe of opportunities
The future of the space industry is bright and very exciting, especially for the UK. Currently, the UK space industry employs approximately 42,000 people and aims to capture 10% of the global space markets by 2030. This includes creating the first sovereign UK launch capability, with spaceports in Newquay and Scotland. Aiming for launch in 2022, this will involve horizontal and vertical launch capabilities for small satellite launches.
The UK already makes about 44% of the world’s small satellites. Having a UK launch service will allow these assets to be launched more sustainably. With more satellites and crewed capsules being launched, the need for communications has increased exponentially.
In the near future, Goonhilly will be deploying antennas around the world to create its own deep space network and will be able to offer full global coverage, 24/7/365. Providing welcome availability beyond current stretched assets.
My advice would be, to pursue something you’re most passionate about. If you’re fortunate enough to find a job you love and enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
I was fortunate enough to find my path into to the space industry through engineering events and speaking to people who work in these incredible and innovative companies.
If you’re able to, carry out a work placement or work experience to get a first-hand feel for the job and industry, this will allow you to apply knowledge learned from study and apply it to real word applications.
This will allow you to determine if the job or industry is right for you. I would also recommend creating a LinkedIn page. It may sound like a cliché, but it will help make you visible to industry professionals.
3 things you may not know about Goonhilly Earth Station
- The Goonhilly site opened in 1962, participating in the world's first transatlantic TV broadcast via satellite using the Telstar satellite, transmitting Apollo footage to the UK and Europe as well as transmitting the 1985 Live-aid concert.
- Goonhilly is part of the world's first commercial private lunar communications network. Partnering with Intuitive Machines, which will be the first commercial company to put a lander on the moon in 2022.
- In 2019, Goonhilly underwent an £8.4 million upgrade to its largest antenna, GHY-6. This 32-metre former communications antenna underwent a two-year upgrade which involved changing 10,000 bolts, replacing an aluminium focusing mirror, and all of the heritage antenna equipment. This upgrade was done in collaboration with ESA, the UK Space Agency and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.
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