23 June 2023


Blog, Engineering, Media Updates, Science, Space

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Logo for the International Women in Engineering Day 2023According to the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, only 20% of the world’s space workforce are women and 11% of astronauts are women[1]. It may seem like a long way to go to achieve a certain gender balance, but some women are already contributing to the future of space in amazing ways. In celebration of International Women in Engineering Day, six RHEA engineers, who are working on exciting space missions that are pushing the boundaries of crewed and uncrewed space exploration, share their experiences of being female engineers in the space sector.

Sara de la Fuente and Veronica Orozco – Juice and BepiColombo missions

Sara de la Fuente from RHEA Group
Sara de la Fuente, Science Operations and Software Development Manager

Sara de la Fuente is RHEA’s Science Operations and Software Development Manager working at ESA’s Science Operations Centre within the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) near Madrid in Spain. Veronica Orozco is RHEA’s Operations Manager in Spain.

RHEA manages several services at ESAC, one of which is the payload operations and software development service for planetary missions, which Sara manages. The RHEA planetary service supports several missions in development and operations, including BepiColombo, which was launched in October 2018 to study Mercury, and Juice, launched in April 2023 to explore Jupiter and its icy moons.

In addition to being active and planning scientific operations when reaching each mission’s target, the on-board instruments are used during the various planetary flybys each spacecraft undergoes in order to manoeuvre it into its final position. So although BepiColombo and Juice will only arrive in 2026 and 2035 respectively, there is much important work to be undertaken in the meantime. Challenges include the complexity of having multiple payloads that are each managed by different institutions, limited power availability and the time lag in communications – data transmission will take 53 minutes each way when Juice arrives at Jupiter.

Sara: “Many things we have learned and developed with BepiColombo have been and are being adapted and applied to the Juice mission, including the Science Planning Operational Tool (SPOT) developed by the RHEA team. Juice is more complex though, because of its journey and because there are multiple targets when it arrives, as it will visit Jupiter and three of its moons.

“These missions are very exciting! BepiColombo will allow us not only to know Mercury better but also the origins of our solar system. With Juice, for example, it will help us understand our largest planet better, and it is also looking for water on the moons, and maybe even signs of life. That could help us understand how life on Earth appeared.”

Veronica: “In Spain, we have 74 people working for RHEA, of which 42% are women and 75% are in management roles. That is unusual at ESAC, and in general in the space industry. Also, there are four companies that are prime contractors providing support services to ESA at ESAC and I am the only woman managing one of these teams, the RHEA one.”

Sara: “We love what we do in our roles in science and in space exploration because they are adding to human knowledge! For me, it is important to have women in visible positions so that young people can be inspired.”

Veronica Orozco from RHEA Group
Veronica Orozco, RHEA Operations Manager in Spain

Emeline Cocheteau – Juice mission to Jupiter

Emeline Cocheteau is RHEA’s Service Manager at the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA). Following an Engineering diploma and a PhD in Nanotechnology, Emeline’s first job in the space sector was at Airbus Defence and Space as a team leader for the integration of satellites. Roles at ADS, where she contributed to building the Galileo ground segment, and the French space agency CNES followed, after which she joined RHEA to work at Airbus in a product assurance role for the Juice mission. In that role, she was responsible for working with suppliers of both the satellite equipment and the on-board instruments, acting as the interface between ESA and the suppliers. Emeline now works as RHEA’s Service Manager in France.

Emeline: “When I worked on Juice, I had to know all about the satellite and understand the goal of the mission, the environment it would operate in, the tests that would be used to validate the equipment and so on. I know the main plans for Juice, even down to the component level for some of the equipment!

“When you start working on a new satellite, you have to learn a lot very quickly – I was working with many stakeholders in different countries, all with different mentalities. I would say it takes 6 months to really understand everything for this kind of role, but after the first couple of months it gets easier. It is worth it because it is a very interesting job.

“When I started working in the space sector, there was a very male mentality. I had the challenge of leading men who were much older and experts in their field, and I had to win their respect and direct their work. It was hard! Now it is much better; there are more women working in the space sector and more in senior roles. I think sometimes women have to work a bit harder than men in technical activities and it can be harder to be accepted as managers. However, if you are competent, any issues around being a woman disappear.”

Cecilia Marasini and Anne-Virginie Odor – Human space exploration

Cecilia from RHEA Group
Cecilia Marasini, RHEA Gateway Operations Engineer and MAS Technical Area Lead

Cecilia Marasini, RHEA Gateway Operations Engineer and MAS Technical Area Lead, and Anne-Virginie Odor, RHEA Configuration Management Officer, both work in the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration. Cecilia works on the Lunar Gateway operations, an international outpost orbiting the Moon that will be built as a staging platform for human exploration on and around the Moon. Anne-Virginie works on the ESPRIT HALO-Lunar Communication System, which will be installed on NASA’s Habitation and Logistic (HALO) module for the lunar Gateway, and on the ESPRIT Refueling Module.

ESA is one of NASA’s partners in the Artemis programme, which is aiming to reestablish a human presence on the Moon. ESA is contributing with habitation and refuelling modules, and enhanced lunar communications to the Lunar Gateway. ESA is also providing two European Service Modules for the Orion spacecraft.

Cecilia: “This major project is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian and Japanese space agencies. As a result, we interface with lots of stakeholders in our work, including suppliers, contractors and our colleagues within ESA and international partners. There is a lot of variety in our jobs!”

Anne-Virginie: “We both previously worked on projects related to the International Space Station, so that helps in our current work – we can anticipate a lot of the activities. More generally, space industry experience is a big plus in our roles, particularly on the operations side. That requirement for experienced engineers is why there is still a male bias among the teams working on these projects. However, the balance is better among the younger graduates.”

Cecilia: “We are very proud to participate in a programme that will result in a European astronaut walking on the Moon. This project is ambitious and inspiring. The technical discussions are very interesting, and intellectually it is challenging – in a good way!”

Anne-Virginie: “It is a unique project, given all the human aspects, and very motivating to work on. When you choose to work in the space sector, this is the kind of project you can aspire to.”

Maria Arevalo Sanchez – James Webb Space Telescope

Maria Arevalo Sanchez from RHEA Group
Maria Arevalo Sanchez, DevOps Software and Database Engineer

Maria Arevalo Sanchez is a RHEA DevOps Software and Database Engineer, working on the archives at the ESAC Science Data Centre (ESDC), in particular how to retrieve, store and distribute the science data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Designed to explore cosmic history and answer outstanding questions about the universe, the JWST is one of the most complex engineering space projects ever undertaken.

Maria: “We provide access to the science data from ESA’s astronomy, planetary science and heliophysics missions and from the Hubble Telescope and JWST. It is estimated that JWST will produce a petabyte of data over the first 10 years of the mission.

“We build the means to store the data in the infrastructure we have at ESAC and also the ways to retrieve that data and make it available to the scientific community. This includes providing graphical user interfaces and other programmatic services that enable easy access to the data.

“Our aim is to give added value to the data by focussing on the user interface design for a user-friendly exploration and retrieval of data products, and providing users with seamless access to services at ESDC.”