Most West Australians would be aware of the State’s historic involvement with space exploration — from Perth being labelled the City of Light by astronaut John Glenn in 1962, when residents turned on their lights as his spacecraft soared overhead, to Carnarvon hosting a tracking station that played a key role in NASA’s early operations.
But few would realise how well Perth is positioned to take advantage of expected growth in the global space industry — or that Australia’s only observation satellite is controlled from an unassuming building in the city’s southern suburbs.
The scientist responsible for operating that satellite and interpreting the images it supplies is Amy Parker, from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.
Australia is one of the world’s biggest users of satellite imagery, including for weather forecasts, assessing natural hazards and monitoring crop health and coastline changes over time.
“We use it in many different parts of life,” Dr Parker said. “But we haven’t in the past operated our own satellites. And so CSIRO, on behalf of Australia, purchased a 10 per cent capacity share in the satellite NovaSAR.”
Based at the Australian Resources Research Centre in Kensington, the 31-year-old is in charge of how Australia collects and receives satellite data, assesses it and distributes it to users.
Dr Parker, who grew up in England and studied geophysics before arriving in Perth in 2015 as a post-doctoral researcher at Curtin University, said her interest in the way the planet was shaped by natural forces was first sparked as a seven-year-old when she read about the volcano that destroyed the ancient civilisation of Pompeii.
“I remember looking at the National Geographic and seeing all of the people who got caught in the Pompeii eruption and seeing their mummified bodies,” she said. “And just looking at it over and over again and being amazed that the Earth could do this.
“I think I’ve always been really interested in the Earth. In travelling the Earth, in being outside and in understanding how it works.
“I ended up realising while I was studying, that satellites are one of the best ways that you can do that because they are able to see more of the Earth than we can.”
Dr Parker’s life almost went in a very different direction. As well as studying physics and maths in senior school she also did art — and enjoyed it so much she considered pursuing it further.
“But I figured a career in science might be just a bit more stable than a career in the arts,” she said. “And I also figured that having a science degree was probably just a good move, even if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.”
Her love of art may have been one of the reasons she was drawn to studying satellite images as “it’s a very visual science”.
Dr Parker said there was far more to the space industry than many people realised, with Perth poised to play a big role.
“Geographically we’re close to Europe,” she said. “I think it’s a really attractive place which helps to attract talent into the State as well, and we do also have a space community.
“Part of that is built on our expertise in remote operations. For example, operating a mine in the Pilbara versus operating a mine in outer space, is perhaps not so far-fetched. There are some similarities between the two.”
She said WA had also developed strengths in using data based on Earth observations. “Partly because our State is so big, the only way you can see it is from satellites,” she said.
With thousands of jobs to be generated in the space industry in the next few years, Dr Parker said it was an exciting time for school leavers thinking about their next steps.
“We need communicators, we need lawyers, we need all these other roles — it’s not just engineers in a lab working on building rockets,” she said.
It was also important to encourage more girls to study subjects in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but she said the biggest challenge was getting women to stay in the field.
“I think that perhaps we’re starting to see more uptake, but then it’s actually how do we keep people in those roles,” she said.
“In Australia, the space sector has had really fantastic female role models, right up to the past head of the Space Agency (Dr Megan Clark).
“I think, even if it’s subconsciously, having those role models there is inevitably going to level the playing field a little and make it less unusual to still be a woman in science at those higher levels.”
“Space is one of the really interesting areas people can be thinking about, and it can be a lot more than just astronauts and robots, there are many facets to space.
“And one of the ways that we use space the most is using it to view our own planet.”