Saturday, July 21, 2007

Experts + opinions: John Zarnecki

[Originally published in Total Spec magazine, June 2007]

If you're ever bored in London's Victoria and feel doing a bit of breaking and entering, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) is certainly worth a look.

The all-pervading glass walls should make the job quite easy, and once you're inside, you can marvel at the numerous NASA-white beams and ride up and down the kind of see-through elevators that would've seemed impressively futuristic about 20 years ago. total:spec did, of course, come in legally. We're just sitting on the third floor, hypnotised by the yo-yoing elevators, when our reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Professor John Zarnecki.

Describing his work, the 57-year-old space scientist says, "Ultimately what I want to do is deliver instruments to interesting places to make interesting measurements." Also an Open University professor, Zarnecki's major piece of work was on the Cassini-Huygens mission, a collaborative effort between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI); he led a team which provided scientific instruments for a probe which successfully landed on one of Saturn's moons, Titan two years back. The magnitude of this is perhaps best illustrated by one fact: give or take a few clicks, Titan is 3.5 billion kilometres away. Zarnecki also had a part in the Beagle 2 Mars mission, led by fellow Brit Colin Pillinger (who he's just come out of a meeting with downstairs). That foray was unsuccessful, but, a self-professed "starry-eyed optimist", Zarnecki's not the type to let himself get discouraged. Anyway, it's both lunchtime and interview-time. He peels a banana, and we begin.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON THESE DAYS?
The main thing is something called Exomars, which is a European mission to Mars, due to be launched in 2013. I've got a couple of instruments that are looking at the ultraviolet radiation, which has never been directly measured on Mars. I'm also part of a team looking at going to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Some people say it's the most likely place for life elsewhere in the solar system. It's a ball of ice, but there's very strong evidence that below the surface there's a global ocean. There are various scenarios you can dream up – perhaps there are bugs swimming around in this warm liquid?

WHAT WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN BEAGLE 2?
Me and my team provided one of the small instruments for the mission. I was working mostly on Cassini-Huygens at the time, so it was almost a side activity, but it was still a desperate disappointment, the first failure I've had.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN IT WENT WRONG?
I'll never forget that Christmas day: we were sitting there at the terminals, waiting for our data. We waited and waited and nothing came through. I felt really dreadful. We went and had a very late Christmas lunch at a friends' house and got absolutely hammered, drowning the sorrows in the traditional way. Mars is a tough place to land on - sadly, we'll never know if that instrument would've worked. Having said that, we're already using some of the know-how we got out of it in the Exomars mission.

SO FAILURE ISN'T ALWAYS THE WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN?
The big project I was involved with for 15 years of my life was Cassini-Huygens, and that came out of a failure. It all started for me in 1988 when I was working on this mission to land on an asteroid. After a year of research, we went to this big meeting in Brussels. The great and the good had to select one of five candidate missions and we were confident they were going to pick ours. But the bastards chose some crazy mission to go to Saturn and Titan. I remember coming back to the lab the next day – I was a young man then – and thinking "Oh God, have we wasted the last year?" I sat down with some of my colleagues over coffee and I said, "What's this Titan place, where is it and what sort of measurements would one want to make?" We literally started with a blank sheet of paper, brainstormed and realised there were a whole bunch of things we could measure and knew how to. And on January 14 2005, we landed on Titan.

HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN IT LANDED?
I don't have the words to describe it, I really don't. We'd all invested so much emotion in it. In the control room in Darmstadt in Germany – that's Europe's version of Houston – the atmosphere was so charged. It was a time I wish I'd been Italian or French, because they were all in tears and flinging their arms round each other and I was trying to maintain this stiff upper lip. But actually I went into the corner and had a little cry. All this data started coming in – one of my instruments was the first part that touched the surface of Titan as the probe hit the ground. It was uncanny: we got a nice signal that looked like the simulations we'd done in the lab. You get to know these instruments, because you'd been playing with them for years but I had to pinch myself because suddenly we were getting that trace on the screen from 3.5 billion kilometres away. It was absolutely unbelievable.

IS THAT THE ACHIEVEMENT YOU'RE MOST PROUD OF?
Yes. You've got to have balls really, some of these ideas are really quite crazy. I can still remember the room we were sitting in for that first meeting – we were young and naïve enough to think that this could happen. We're looking at a return to Titan, but that won't happen for 20 years, way after I'm retired, possibly even dead. I've been in this so long, that I'm fairly used to projects being long term, but it is strange to be working on stuff that you know you will never see through.

AMERICA'S GOING TO SEND PEOPLE BACK TO THE MOON. WHAT'S THEIR MOTIVATION?
Personally, I think the reason is that the Chinese announced they were going to put a man on the moon; it's a geopolitical thing. However, there really are scientific reasons for going. I use this expression "The moon as a museum." We've lost all record of the early history of our planet because of all the geological activity, but there are likely to be fragments preserved on the surface of the moon from early Earth and - this is a real longshot – there may even be fossils of ancient Earth life there. There's lots to do on the Moon.

WHAT FIRST ATTRACTED YOU TO SPACE?
I was a schoolkid in north London when Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, suddenly became the most famous person alive. He embarked on a world tour and the first place he went to was London. In those days every visiting Russian dignitary would have to go to Highgate cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried. I was at school just round the corner and we were given the day off so we could go – that's how famous he was. Most of my mates went off to play football, but for some reason I decided I had to go along. I ended up standing about 10 feet away from him. He was wearing this big Russian uniform with a massive cap and standing in front of this big mausoleum, saluting. I just thought, "Bloody hell, this bloke has been around the world in 93 minutes". You can't imagine how mind-blowing that seemed – the first person to leave the confines of the earth. I didn't really understand what it was all about – I was 10 years old - but I knew that it was what I wanted to do.

DO YOU THINK THERE'S INTELLIGENT LIFE OUT THERE?
I think there has to be. There's either only us, or it's everywhere. We're now finding exoplanets, planets around other suns. We've found about 200 now, which means planetary systems are quite common. Once you accept that, and accept that life is a chemical or biological accident, you just need the right conditions. What you've got to appreciate is the size of our universe; it's communicating with them that's going to be the problem. You'll send out signal saying "hello", wait 25, 30, 40 years and get a "hello, how are you?" back. By the time you've sent your reply, you're dead. It's going to be a weird and stilted conversation.

DOES YOUR LINE OF WORK MEAN YOU THINK ABOUT THE BIG QUESTIONS MORE THAN MOST PEOPLE?
Yes, but it's bizarre because it becomes part of your everyday work and existence. Sometimes I worry about that, because you should be amazed that today's question is, "Are we alone in the universe?" Well yeah, but that's the question before coffee. After coffee, it's, "What is the ultimate fate of our solar system?" and after lunch it's, "What happened before the big bang?" People tell us we don't know how lucky we are to be discussing these things. We'll stop and realise, yeah, we are lucky.

1 comment:

James K said...

True story: I did temping in that office a few years ago.