Technical officer Department of Experimental Physics, Maynooth, Optical Engineer at the European Space Agency
Senior Optical Engineer – Optical design, analysis, test and technical management of R&D into advanced optical technologies for space applications
I’m an Irish Physics graduate (Trinity College) and now working as an optical engineer at the European Space Agency
I have been living the The Netherlands (Holland) since 1991, where I work at ESA’s large research and test centre (ESTEC) . I speak fluent Dutch and like singing in choirs as a hobby to distract me from the stresses of space deadlines! As a nerdy science type I was never much interested in languages. But since coming here have surprised myself that learning a new language is not as hard as I thought. Working in a multinational environment has also been very stimulating and rewarding. My favourite TV series is The Big Bang Theory (of course) although I don’t own a TV.
My work is endlessly challenging and exiting and sometime we get to see our hardware landing on a comet, e.g. Philae and Rosetta
Here’s a picture of me (at left) during final measurements and inspections of the Herschel Telescope in the test centre at ESTEC before it was shipped to French Guiana for launch in 2009.
This was probably one of the most exciting and interesting periods of my career. We were all very conscious of the scientific importance of this mission and the challenges we had to face to get the telescope ready for flight. It is the largest single optical mirror (3.5 m diameter) so far launched into space.
The mirror (and in fact the entire telescope structure) is made from a very tough ceramic material called Silicon Carbide. We choose this material because it has a very low Coefficient of Thermal Expansion (CTE). The reason for this is because the telescope operated at about – 210 Deg C (or 80 Kelvin). We therefore could be sure that the size and shape did not change by much between room temperature and it operating temperature in space.
Why was it so cold, you might ask? Well, this is because we were trying to measure very very faint infra-red (IR or heat or thermal) radiation from cool dust star formation regions of our galaxy (The Milky-Way) and more distant galaxies in the early Universe. If the telescope was too warm it’s own heat radiation would be too strong for us to see the very faint objects in the sky. That was also the reason why the telescope was so large, so we could grab as many IR photons as possible.
My Typical Day
Participate as an optics expert in a review team for a satellite to be launched in 2022, provide advice and guidance to a colleage about an optics measurement problem, and write technical specifications for a new research project.
I’m working at the moment with colleagues at ESA to review the design of scientific instruments that will fly to Jupiter on a Satellite called JUICE which will be launched in 2022. It reaches Jupiter 8 years later in 2030 to start its mission. Maybe you will have the chance to work on this data?
I’m also working with a team which is building an Earth Observation satellite called Earth Care. This mission carries a number of important optical instruments to measure the atmosphere. The most challenging instrument is a Laser Radar (or LIDAR) which will use an Ultra Violet laser to measure wind speeds over the entire planet. This is the first time this shall ever be done and shall revolutionize weather forecasting.
I’m also part of the team running our optics laboratory at ESTEC. Here we make high precision measurements of components to verify their performance. One thing we do a lot of is measuring the straylight scattered from surfaces.
What I'd do with the money
I will donate it to my old School Colaiste Iognaid in Galway city.
I would travel to Galway myself to present it to the school and to give an inspirational talk to the pupils. We still have not had an Irish Astronaut, maybe the next one shall come from Galway!
I will suggest to the school that they either invest the money in physics equipment for the laboratory and they initiate an annual award (perpetual trophy) to be given to the top physics student in 5th year. That student then has to inspire and motivate her fellow students year to win the prize for the following year.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Inquisitive, geeky and amiable
What's the best thing you've done as an engineer?
Lead a team that solved the Herschel telescope (cryogenic) focus problem (before flight!)
What or who inspired you to become an engineer?
My physics teacher at school and Neil Armstrong
What did you want to be after you left school?
Were you ever in trouble at school?
If you weren't an engineer, what would you be?
Probably a Psycotherapist, perhaps
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Cecilia Bartoli (Italian Soprano) & Seconda Pratica (Early music ensemble 16th & 17th vocal music!)
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Attending the first (12th April 1981) and last (8 July 2011) Space Shuttle launches
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Visit the International Space Station, Go to Antarctica, Sing on Mars
Tell us a joke.
A neutron walks into a bar and asks how much for a drink. The bartender says; “for you no charge”
The Planck mission was launched at the same time as Herschel, and I worked also on that telescope. Here we are doing alignment checks during the spacecraft assembly in the Thales-Alenia cleanroom at their facility in Cannes, France.