A Visit to Toulouse: France’s Space Capital
Image Credit: Kierann Shah

A Visit to Toulouse: France’s Space Capital

27/05/2016Written by Kierann Shah

National Space Academy Manager Dr Kierann Shah goes behind the scenes at CNES and Cite de l'Espace in the South of France

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mascot Telescope Right

Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales

Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales
Image Credit: Kierann Shah

I sometimes find myself in the most amazing places in the name of building links with the space sector and science educators.

At the start of May I found myself in the home of the French national space agency, CNES.  The Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales, or National Space Research Centre as it might be translated, is just outside the beautiful city of Toulouse in southern France.

Since the launch of Tim Peake’s mission in December the UK’s enthusiasm for space and human spaceflight in particular has soared, but whilst for us Tim’s ESA mission is a one-off in many ways, the French are very used to working on human spaceflight missions.

It is partly for this reason that CNES houses one of only nine User Support and Operational Centres (USOC) for the International Space Station (ISS) in Europe.  The CNES USOC is called CADMOS, and has been involved in human spaceflight research since 1993.

Image Credit: Kierann Shah

In fact the next ESA astronaut to go to the ISS will be French. Thomas Pesquet is part of ESA’s class of 2009, the same group as Tim Peake, and he will be the last of this group of six astronauts to go to space when he launches in November.  At CADMOS you can see how the researchers on the ground link up with astronauts like Thomas to work together on research on the Columbus module of the ISS.

Although there is a particular focus on physiology research – research on the body and how it responds to microgravity – at CADMOS, the project I found most exciting to hear about was a physics experiment that the astronauts themselves will have to install.  This experiment, called ACES (Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space) will see the most accurate atomic clock placed on the outside of the ISS and used to observe the fundamental physics phenomenon of time dilation.  On the day we were there CADMOS was quiet but researcher Mauro Augelli informed me that when ACES starts running there will need to be staff there 24/7!

Mars Laser

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/J.-L. Lacour, CEA

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/J.-L. Lacour, CEA

This problem of fitting staff time to space missions was also apparent at another control centre, FIMOC. This is the home of the ChemCam, which is one of the investigative instruments on NASA’s Curiosity Rover, part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.  The researchers here work from 5pm onwards overnight so that their work day aligns with the mission headquarters at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena, USA.

ChemCam is an analysis tool which looks at the light released during Laser-Induced Breakdown (LIBS) of rock samples to work out their composition.  In other words, ChemCam fires a laser at rocks to break them apart and see what they are made of – making holes of about a centimetre in rocks as far away as 4 metres!  So far it has analysed about 1300 rocks.

Each day at FIMOC starts with data downlink, planning and analysis, and then each of the research teams working on instruments on the Mars Science Laboratory pitches their proposal for how the rover’s time should be used for its next Sol (a Sol is one Martian day).

As the rover can only do science experiments for about 2 hours every Sol the different research teams need to take turns and agree on who gets to use those 2 hours for their project depending on where the rover is and what they are looking for.  Getting the use of time wrong can be very expensive so there is a lot of pressure on the scientists and engineers, but the results they are finding are incredible: such as investigating rocks to find gypsum, a rock which can only be formed in the presence of water.

Space Education

Space Education
Image Caption: Kierann Shah

Now it might sound like I had a lot of fun learning about CNES, which I did, but of course I was in Toulouse for work.

I spent time with the CNES’ Head of Education and her team, who work with French teachers and students to bring space science into the classroom.  I also spent a lot of time at the fantastic visitor attraction Cité de l’Espace, a visitor centre in Toulouse that works towards the same goals as the National Space Centre: engaging the public with the wonder of space.  The main differences are the scale of the centres – Cité de l’Espace has wonderful outside spaces including a Mir space station that you can walk through and a 1:1 scale model of an Arianne 5 launcher, brilliant when the sun is shining.

I spent time with their Education team as well, along with a group of physics teachers from Poland.  We are working together on a project led by the Polish team, and funded by the EU Commission through its Erasmus + programme, to find ways to use the inspirational contexts of space exploration, astronomy, and the work that space researchers do to bring classroom science, especially physics, to life in Poland, France, and the UK.

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