Bolton School Senior Girls

Revealing What It Takes to be an Astronaut

  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening
  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening (4)
  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening (5)
  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening (6)
  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening (2)
  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening (1)
  • Suzie Imber Enrichment Evening (3)

Dr Suzie Imber visited Bolton School to give a talk about her career, her varied interests beyond the world of science, and her experiences on BBC 2’s reality television programme Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? which she won last year. Dr Imber is an Associate Professor at the University of Leicester, specialising in the study of ‘space weather’ and the environments of the planets in our solar system, particularly Earth and Mercury.

She gave a whirlwind overview of her life so far, from her schooldays to the present, beginning with the fact that she didn’t want to be a scientist or an astronaut when she was younger, but rather an explorer: a theme she returned to later while discussing her passion for high-altitude mountaineering.

She talked about the extra-curricular activities she took part in at school, such as lacrosse and the cadet force, and the fact that she took advantage of all the opportunities offered to her. Throughout her scientific career, she has picked up several new sports, including wushu kung-fu, elite rowing and high-altitude mountaineering. Each of these sports helped her teamwork, communication, and a host of additional skills that she would not necessarily have worked on as part of her job. She highlighted the importance of looking for gaps in her skill set, across the board not just in science, and addressing them in order to improve.

Dr Imber also discussed the scientific work she has been involved with, including her internship at NASA which gave her a first taste of real research and inspired her to complete a PhD in physics. After graduating, she worked at Goddard Space Flight Centre from 2008 to 2011, a time when the first ever spacecraft arrived in orbit around Mercury, meaning that she was the first person to analyse some of the data which was sent back! She also briefly explained her work on magnetospheres of terrestrial planets, and how explosions on the surface of the sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and cause severe effects known as ‘space weather’. She made this complex field of study really accessible, and pointed out that space weather can have a profound effect on technology and power sources and therefore on today’s society. She also explained why she studies Mercury and some of the research that will be carried out through the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission to the planet, which launches later this year and will arrive in 2025.

In addition, Dr Imber talked extensively about her passion for high-altitude mountaineering and how it has intersected with her scientific studies. In her spare time, she used altitude data taken in 2002 from the space shuttle to map the mountains in the Andes, and found dozens of undiscovered peaks between 5,000 and 6,000 metres. She has since visited some of these and found Inca ruins. She has also been able to take field trips to these sites. Locations where there is no human contamination are important for studying climate change and also allowed her to collect extremophiles: life-forms which exist in extreme conditions, which can be used to test an instrument which will one day be sent to Mars to look for signs of life or past life.

Finally, she talked about her experiences on the BBC 2 reality television programme Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? She said the programme has been described as “like Bake Off, but instead of Mary Berry we had Commander Chris Hadfield”, who has served as the commander of the International Space Station. All of the contestants had science degrees, but something additional as well, and Dr Imber pointed out that their science skills were never tested as part of the programme.

She noted that they were not given preparation or feedback but had to deal with a range of physical, mental, practical and emotional tests with no contact with the outside world. Particularly interesting anecdotes were the first test, which she described as a “test of failure” to see how each participant responded, and the emotional resilience test, in which it wasn’t about the answers to the questions asked but the micro-expressions and reactions they had before speaking.

She was also able to describe what it was like to feel G-forces while being spun in a centrifuge, visiting Aquarius, NASA’s training centre bolted to the bottom of the ocean, and experiencing weightlessness in a reduced-gravity aircraft. However, Dr Imber said that the best thing about Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? was the people, who she has stayed in touch with and wouldn’t have met if she hadn’t taken part.

The event ended with a series of questions from the audience. When asked whether she had the opportunity to go into space, Dr Imber revealed that sadly Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? was “not that kind of TV show” and her prize was actually a letter of recommendation from Chris Hadfield for the next time the European Space Agency opens its astronaut training programme. However, the last time this happened was ten years ago and there is no guarantee of when it will open again. Nonetheless, she also said that her life has gone in a completely different direction as a result of the show, thanks to the outreach she now does and her involvement with helping companies come up with training programmes for commercial space flight, and she was glad to have done it. She was also asked about her high-altitude mountaineering and whether she named the mountains she discovered, and replied that she did, but had “learned from the mistakes of the past” and didn’t name them after herself! Instead, she uses other local features as inspiration. She also talked about her passion for climbing less well-known mountains where there are no other people. In terms of her research, she was asked if she had found any mountains on Mercury and revealed that there are not many, but instead there are lots of craters, and was also asked if she looks at any other planets. She talked about using the Hubble Space Telescope to look at Jupiter and Saturn, in order to get a better understanding of the dynamics of the whole solar system. Finally, she said that she had a few more high-altitude field trips planned this summer and winter, which will allow her to tackle some brutal technical peaks between 5,000 and 6,000 metres in height while simultaneously collecting scientific samples.

Dr Imber’s talk formed the culmination of a day-long Festival of Science hosted by the school. Over 800 students from Bolton School and other local schools attended. Primary school children including Bolton School Junior Boys and Girls and Year 1 pupils from Beech House, Bolton School’s Infant School, experienced the fascinating Polestar Planetarium, which was set up in the Great Hall for the day. Girls’ Division pupils in Year 10 were also able to visit the Planetarium. Secondary school pupils in years 7 to 9 enjoyed an action-packed science presentation from Sam Gregson about ‘Finding the Higgs Particle’ and the work of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Sam also ran a competition prior to Dr Imber’s lecture, in which teams watched a simulation of what happens inside the LHC and had to identify when specific sets of particles were created.

This was also the last Science event in the series of Arts and Sciences Enrichment Evenings hosted by the Girls’ Division. The final Arts event of the school year will be a Poetry Festival featuring pupils and acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, which will take place on 2 May.

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