Ciara Kenny

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My space voyage through Europe

A career with the European Space Agency has been an experience out of this world for Laurence O’Rourke

Ground Control: The European Space Agency's science operations centre

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00


Laurence O’Rourke

My work with satellites and asteroids is in many ways out of this world, but it is my family, in Spain and in Ireland, that keep my feet on solid ground.

I’ve always had a keen interest in space and astronomy. As a child I drew countless rockets. In my teens I bought a telescope to observe the stars and planets from my home near Mullingar. I graduated from NUI Maynooth with dual honours in physics and maths, then took a master’s in microelectronics at University College Cork. In 1996 I joined a graduate programme at Estec, the European Space Agency’s technology centre, in the Netherlands.

At Estec we had an amazing chance to build and launch a small satellite, called Teamsat. After we had been working on it for a year it was transported to the launch site, in French Guiana. I travelled there to help test it. Standing beside the 17-storey Ariane 5 rocket was the realisation of my childhood dreams.

Watching a rocket launch is an emotional, nerve-racking experience, especially when so much of your life is invested in the satellite sitting on top of it. Minutes after it separated from the rocket we got our first data. I will never forget the awe I felt seeing the images of Earth it took.

I also met my wife, Cristina, who is from Spain, at Estec, and in 1998 we moved to Germany to work at the agency’s European space-operations centre. I worked on the eight-tonne Envisat, an Earth observation satellite launched in 2002, and the “comet chaser” satellite Rosetta. I was spacecraft operations engineer on Rosetta, responsible for controlling it in space to ensure the solar panels faced the sun and the antennae pointed to Earth, to maintain communication.

A few months after Rosetta launched, in 2004, I was offered the chance to move to the agency’s European space astronomy centre, near Madrid. It was a great opportunity both professionally and personally; my wife and I could travel more often to Ireland rather than dividing our holidays between our two home countries while living in a third.

Initially I worked as a science operations engineer, controlling the scientific instruments aboard Integral, a gamma-ray telescope that searches for black holes and supernovae.

In 2005, I moved to work on science operations with Herschel, the largest infrared space telescope ever launched. A giant Thermos flask filled with liquid helium keeps its instruments at about minus 273 degrees, allowing it to see extremely cold objects and stellar regions such as interstellar dust, asteroids and comets.

In late 2011 I returned to work on Rosetta. Since 2004 it had travelled through the solar system, passing Earth and Mars, using the planets’ gravitational pull to pick up speed and put it in the same orbit as the comet it is chasing. In January it switched itself on after 31 months in hibernation. It will arrive at the comet on my birthday, August 7th, a date I share with my twin, Tony, and father, Laurence.

In November Rosetta will release a small probe to land on the comet. It will then perform fly-bys, swooping over the comet’s surface as it gets closer to the sun, watching it release the dust and gas that give it its tail.

My work is challenging and rewarding, and we are very happy as a family in Spain. I miss Ireland a lot, but regular visits home to Mullingar with my family keep me connected with the people I care about. It’s also really important that my children grow up knowing their family and cousins in Ireland.

 - In conversation with Ciara Kenny

This article appears in the Weekend Review section of The Irish Times today.