World Space Week this year is celebrating the achievements of Women in Space.
Dr Feng, who is a panelist at the upcoming Scottish Space Day at the World Expo which takes place in Dubai, gives an insight into her route into the sector, what inspired her and how working in space can be out of this world.
What initially drew you to the space sector and what has been your education/career path to date?
My interest in space was sparked when I was in high school. I was very interested in physics and astronomy in particular, as I have been always very curious about how things work and what is in space. I had very nice physics teachers who encouraged me. I also remember seeing the coverage of the two rovers ‘Sprit’ and ‘Opportunity’ that were sent to Mars in 2003. I actually wanted to be an astronaut when I was younger, but now I know more about the physical demands of going into space and I’m more realistic.
I am from China and I did my bachelor’s degree in broad engineering and Masters in the field of aerospace there, before pursuing my PhD at the Delft University of Technology in astrodynamics and space mission group. I then moved back China for my postdoc to continue my research about asteroids exploration. In 2019 I got my first academic job as a lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow at Strathclyde to start my professional career here.
What is your space research and does it have real-world applications or benefits?
My research focuses on space, in particular on analytical and numerical simulations about satellites motion around a celestial body contributing to space mission design. I’m mainly working on several projects about robust motion design, uncertainty analysis and Artificial Intelligence-based optical navigation for future asteroid exploration missions, together with the European Space Agency.
Asteroids are like small solar system bodies and they contain a lot of scientific information about our solar system, including rare resources. They are very far from earth and it’s difficult to determine their mass and rotation and physical parameters before a space craft arrives there and so there are a lot of uncertainties around the environment. Robust motion design is a way to ensure our mission is successful, given the uncertainties.
What do you see as your biggest accomplishment?
My proudest moment was when I successfully defended my PhD in 2016 with my self-generated research project on asteroid exploration. The other one was securing an academic role in a UK university here at Strathclyde in 2019
Why is it important to highlight the contributions of Women in Space?
There is a long-recognised gap in the number of men and women who pursue careers in STEM and space. Research attributes the gap more to the power of stereotypes on young children.
Highlighting the contributions of women in space demonstrates or proves they can solve space challenges and pursue careers in space. These are the visible female role models.
By breaking this gender stereotype and making people feel that this is happening around them and not somebody far away or just in the book, you can encourage the younger female generation to engage in space and in STEM. I hope that seeing women like me and my colleagues working in space will inspire the next generation. I’m still quite junior so am inspired and encouraged by my own female colleagues.
I would say to anyone considering a career in space that it covers broad fields where you can really develop your passions. There are challenges but also lots of opportunities. Follow your passion and follow your heart, go and pursue it no matter whether other people judge or not. Your engagement will contribute to the space exploration.
What has your biggest challenge been?
Space is a fast-moving field with many new technologies emerging and my challenge is to keep myself updated and at the forefront of any advances in research.
What drew you to Strathclyde?
The University has a good international reputation in space-related research and a sizeable space cluster, with interesting topics to work on - and excellent colleagues. I’m well supported by my working group, the Aerospace Center of Excellence, directed by Professor Massimiliano Vasile. The space cluster here has collaborations with the space industry, which provides channels for academia to interact with to apply the research to real applications
I also enjoy the international and multi-cultural working and studying environment. I like the Scottish culture and find the people here warm.