University of Melbourne Magazine

A step into the heavens

  • Beth Jens on the beach at Torquay

    Beth Jens on the beach at Torquay: “I love space exploration.” PICTURE: JULIAN KINGMA


    By following her dreams, Dr Beth Jens may well end up going as far as is humanly possible – deep into outer space. It’s an adventure the young engineer from Torquay has been chasing since she decided at the age of 12 to become an astronaut. And she’s certainly given herself a good chance to fulfil that ambition.

    Jens (BEng(MechEng)(Hons), BSc 2008) is now employed at Caltech’s famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California – the place where the Mars rovers and much of NASA’s rocket technology were developed. She is working on new ways of fuelling small space vehicles.

    Getting this far has taken a lot of hard work, a fair dollop of serendipity and that splash of ambition.

    “I love space exploration,” she says. “When I was young, one of the Apollo astronauts was out in Australia. Dad happened to sit beside him on an internal flight, and he invited us to his talk in Geelong. He showed pictures of standing on the moon. And I thought, ‘Why couldn’t anyone who was passionate and worked hard get there?’ I think that started it.

    “I was very single-minded about being an astronaut, and I would do anything to get there. Now, I just love the idea of helping support the space effort, whether that’s as an engineer or going into space. But I’d still like to be an astronaut.”

    When she was a young student in the 1990s, no one laughed at Jens’ ambition to go into space. Her school, Sacred Heart College in Geelong, and especially her physics and maths teachers, encouraged her. Yet she admits there was a little goodnatured bewilderment on the part of the careers teacher, who then did her best to find Jens a relevant placement, at a flying school in Essendon.

    When Jens went on to the University of Melbourne, it was natural to enrol in a physics degree, but she also decided to take on engineering, partly because she knew Australia’s only astronaut, Andy Thomas, was an engineer.

    Despite the fact that her elder brother was also in engineering, her parents needed a little reassurance. “Mum was a little confused at first. ‘Are you sure it’s a respectable career?’ she asked me.”

    Even so, Jens suffered a little from culture shock. No space or aeronautical engineering subjects were offered at the University, so she opted for mechanical engineering and found herself in a class of young men who had been pulling cars apart since they were kids.

    When asked in a programming course what languages she had, it took her a moment to recognise it was computer languages that her lecturers were interested in rather than her experience of Japanese.

    Things are changing. A new generation of enterprising students are working on a project that could make this progression into space exploration much more straightforward. With support from the School of Engineering, they have established a University of Melbourne Space Program with the aim of designing, constructing and launching a series of kilogram-sized cube satellites from next year.

    They hope the experience they gain and the skills they develop will help to expand the small Australian space industry and the educational base to support it.

    “Space is a hole in our national research profile,” says Professor Rachel Webster of the School of Physics, who was involved in a $40 million government effort to encourage a local industry.

    “When you think of the observational platforms above earth, these are now crucial for managing, monitoring and understanding the environment – fires, for instance, and much else.Expertise in space is something we cannot afford to be without.”

    In recalling her journey into the field, Jens says it helped a lot to be living on campus in Newman College with the access that gave her to the university experience and to sports. With help from Professor Ivan Marusic, she even managed to conjure up a final-year research project on the prospect of powering space probes on Mars and Venus using wind energy.

    Not only was she awarded first class honours, she was also selected to present her work in Glasgow at the world’s largest space conference. That was her introduction to the global space community, and the industry that supports it.

    She then attended a general introductory course of the International Space University at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, and – with support from her local Rotary Club and the Australian Fulbright Program – enrolled in a Masters of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University.

    At the end of it all she was taken on as an intern at JPL, which eventually put her through her PhD at Stanford studying a new, safer form of rocket propulsion using a fast-burning hybrid fuel. One of the potential uses for this type of hybrid propulsion is in moving around cube satellites just like those being planned at the University. They are becoming an important and inexpensive space research tool, used for jobs such as gathering data and assisting communication.

    “When I first got to Stanford I was a little concerned I might be behind the other students,” says Jens. “But it soon became clear that the skill set in maths and physics that the University of Melbourne had provided was very applicable – a very strong, sound theoretical basis.”

    Rob Mearns

    Eye on the sky: Student Rob Mearns is working on the University’s Space Program. PICTURE: CHRIS HOPKINS.

    Even so, she says, her leap into the space industry would have been a lot easier if she’d had an opportunity to apply her skills earlier.

    That is just what mechatronics graduate student Rob Mearns (BSc 2012, ME 2015) and three engineering mates thought 18 months ago, several months after receiving an email from the Director of the Centre for Neural Engineering, Professor Stan Skafidas (BE(ElecEng) 1992, BSc 1993, MEngSc 1996, PhD 1998). The message invited them to a meeting open to anyone interested in building a cube satellite to be launched in 2018.

    The four students saw the project as a way to develop useful expertise in a field critical to Australia’s future in areas such as land management and emergency response. So they wrote back proposing that they manage the project and, instead of just one satellite, that plans be drawn up for a series of launches, starting with a simple prototype in 2017.

    Coincidentally, 50 years earlier a group of engineering students at the University began constructing the first Earth satellite built in Australia. The Australis Oscar 5, or AO5, was completed in 1967 and launched into orbit by a US Air Force rocket in 1970. In the 45 years since then, no Australian university has repeated this.

    But now some universities – New South Wales, Sydney and Adelaide – have embarked on satellite projects. The student-run University of Melbourne Space Program, however, wants to do things differently. Although much basic technology is freely available, the group wants to develop its own skills, designing and customising the University of Melbourne satellites to their purpose.

    Led by Mearns as engineering director and advised by Skafidas, with strong in-kind support from the School of Engineering, in little more than a year the program has recruited about 60 engineering students and nearly half that number again from other faculties.

    This group is working on all aspects of the project – from engineering design and electrical circuitry through to legal issues, education and sponsorship. Another 70 or so students have expressed interest, and are attending meetings and workshops.

    The central idea, says Mearns, is to create a communications network in low-Earth orbit to facilitate the work of other satellites. The University’s satellites typically will weigh about a kilogram each, meaning they can be taken up as secondary cargo in rockets launching much larger space probes or supplying the International Space Station.

    Catching the Wave

    Albert Einstein

    For Professor Andrew Melatos, the news was momentous.

    The announcement in February that gravitational waves had been detected changed the very way we look at space, he says.

    “Without exaggeration, it changes humanity in a way,” he observes. “It’s a new era, because from now onwards humans will look at the sky with gravitational waves, as well as the other things we know, such as light and radio and X-rays.”

    Melatos and the University are members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational- wave Observatory (LIGO), the huge international scientific collaboration that eventually detected gravitational waves.

    These were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago on the basis of his theory of general relativity.Gravitational waves should allow us to penetrate regions of space that electromagnetic waves cannot, and therefore provide us with information about black holes and other exotic objects in the distant universe.

    And it is one of those exotic objects, neutron stars, the hugely dense remnants of supernova explosions, that lie at the heart of Melatos’ work.

    He and his students in the School of Physics model their theoretical properties and calculate what kinds of gravitational waves they should generate. Then they sift through LIGO data to see if they can pick up that signal.

    Now the gravitational wave announcement has changed everything.

    “Up ’til now LIGO has been more or less a physics experiment, to make that first detection and prove Einstein was right,” Melatos says.

    “But now the astronomy begins. What we expect is that over the next five to 10 years the detectors will dramatically improve in sensitivity and we will see more and more things, perhaps even neutron stars.”

    Melatos is one of a highly rated group of astrophysicists at the University who combine theory with practical experimentation.

    Many of them are at the forefront of research into one of the great unknown periods of cosmic history, a dark age known as the Epoch of Reionisation when the first stars and galaxies formed.

    During that time no light or other form of electromagnetic radiation was generated – at least that we can analyse directly.

    So we have to rely on other means of acquiring information. Researchers in the School of Physics are using today’s most powerful astronomical instruments to plug that information gap and ask questions that are shaping the design of the next generation of instruments.

    “We’re trying to answer fundamental curiosity-driven questions, such as how did the universe come into being and, indirectly, what are the conditions for life?” says astrophysicist Professor Rachel Webster, a member of the science working group for what will be the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, part of which is to be built in Western Australia.