Posted on / in Leader's Award

Space, Satellites and spacecrafts.. Ian Jones answers it all!

On Friday 3rd February we had the pleasure of interview Ian Jones, CEO of the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, for our Leaders Award competition!

We were overwhelmed and blown away by the sheer number of questions from schools during the interview and couldn’t get round to them all during the 30 minute interview so Ian kindly took some time after the interview to answer them all!

Watch the full interview below!

One question that was very popular and asked by several schools was “What inspired you to become an engineer”.

Ian: I liked to understand how things work. I realised that if you know how things work, then you can design new things that haven’t been made before. I also realised that complex things are made up of simpler things and I liked the idea that you could put them together.

Kim – Has any of your projects ever gone wrong?

Ian: Yes, all the time. Engineering is all about finding problems and fixing them. You learn much more rapidly from things that go wrong than those that go right. In my previous company we designed some new equipment and took it to the USA to show to a potential customer. When we plugged it in, it crashed the entire network and it was an embarrassing disaster. On the plane home we discussed what had gone wrong – and thought of an entirely new way of solving the problem. A few weeks later we had our new design – which turned out to be the best in the World! That wouldn’t have happened if things had worked first time.

Rebecca – What are the giant golf balls for?

Ian: The have satellite dishes inside them, just like the other ones. The ‘golf balls’ are for protection from the weather – mostly the wind. When we need to point very accurately, the wind can be a problem.

Kim – How do they get into space?

Ian: Satellites are launched on the top of rockets. Rockets need to be very powerful because a satellite needs to travel at 20,000km/k or faster to stay in orbit.

Miss Carruthers, Mrs McGuire, Miss Kerr and Eleana – Have you ever been into space?

Ian: Yes and no! I’ve never been on a rocket, but earth is in space. Here’s a calculation: Distance from the Earth to the Sun (Radius) = 150M km. The circumference of the Earth’s orbit = 2 x Pi x R = 2 x 3.14 x 150M km = 942M km. It takes 365 days to complete one circumference. There are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute. Therefore the speed we are travelling through space is 942,000,000 / 365 / 24 / 60 / 60 = 29.8 km per SECOND. Space is about 150 km above us. So every 5 SECONDS we are standing where space was just 5 seconds ago!! Stand outside in the morning, look up and count to 5!

Kim – How do they stay in space?

Ian: Satellites stay in space because they are going very fast. The earth is constantly pulling the satellite downwards. If the Earth wasn’t there, the satellite would just carry on moving in a straight line at the same speed, but the Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to pull the satellite so it keeps going round and round forever.

Alice – Have you made any inventions?

Ian: Yes. I designed the radios that allow you to make telephone calls from an aeroplane via satellite. I also designed the software that was used by the BBC to connect their news correspondents in different parts of the world to the studio via satellite link.

Justin – How long did it take to build Goonhily 6?

Ian: It takes about a year to build a 32m antenna

Lucy Opray – How big is the mars express?

Ian: The main body of Mars Express is 1.5m x 1.8m x 1.4m. The span of the solar panels is 12m. It’s mass is 1.2 tonnes (without fuel).

Mrs Fitzgerald – What problems would you like to solve through engineering and satellites?

Ian: Satellites can help to look after the Earth and people on Earth, but it’s also fun and important to keep exploring. I’d like to help us go back to the Moon and set up a space station there.

Miss Bentham – How long did it take you to make a satellite?

Ian: Antennas come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest can be built in a day, and the biggest take over a year. The satellites (the bit that goes into space) usually take 1-3 years to design and build, although, these days, some satellites are built in a few weeks if the same design is manufactured many times.

Lucy – How far away is the sun from the earth?

Ian: 150 million km

Elliot – How do you control the satellites?

Ian: A Satellites (in space) have lots of systems on board to look after themselves. They have solar panels for electricity, radiators for heating and cooling, radios for communicating, rockets for manoeuvring etc. Signals are sent from the ground to tell the systems what to do.

The satellite dishes (antennas) on the ground are controlled by computers. We have computers to point them in the right direction, but we need to write programmes to do those calculations. We use radio equipment to send and receive signals. Most of the time, satellites are controlled by their owners in another part of the world. They send their messages to Goonhilly over the Internet and we connect those messages to the satellite using our dishes.

Lauren – How many people have you sent into space?

Ian: We haven’t sent anyone ourselves, but we have some satellite dishes that help the astronauts go to the International Space Station.

Mrs Sweeney – Have you been on a rocket?

Ian: I’ve been next to a rocket. Last month we helped Virgin Orbit with their launch from Spaceport Cornwall.

Alice – What commands do you use when you are working?

Ian: Each satellite has a set of commands that it understands. Before we send any commands to a satellite we practice with a simulator. This allows us to practice and make mistakes on the ground.

We then assemble the commands into scripts and then we choose only to send the scripts. By doing things this way we reduce the risk of making a mistake and sending the wrong command. We would never send a command before testing it first.

Examples: Fire West Thrusters 2.0 seconds. Switch Transponder 27B to High Power Mode

Justin – Is your job challenging?

Ian: Yes, it can be extremely challenging in many different ways. It can be difficult to think about how to design some new electronics or software, but it can also be very difficult to persuade people to support the work you want to do, or to think of all the different problems in running a business.

Kayleigh – What was the first thing you ever worked on?

Ian: I worked on a receiver that was used to send text messages to ships via satellite for maritime safety. First I needed to design the antenna and the radio equipment and then the modem. It appeared on Tommorow’s World on TV!

Sophie – Will there be people onboard the HAKUTO-R spacecraft when it lands on the moon?

Ian: No. It’s a rover, with no people on board. All the people are on Earth and they are sending the commands remotely via Goonhilly and other ground stations depending whether the Moon is visible in the sky at the time.

Alice – What tools do you use?

Ian: We have a huge variety of tools. Here are some:

Computer, super-computer, oscilloscope, spectrum analyser, multi-meter, spanners (we have some huge ones!), cherrypicker, harnesses (for dangling off dishes), calculator, standard-gain-horn, vacuum pump, laser theodolite, power meter, lawnmower, …and lots more!

Miss Carruthers – How many rockets have you helped make that worked?

Ian: 1 rocket. The Space industry is huge with lots of different roles. Generally, I stick to communications engineering. The only rocket I ever built launched from my back garden, successfully flew over three houses and landed in a neighbour’s barbecue.

Mrs Fitzgerald – What other missions have you been working on and completed?

Ian: Every day Goonhilly communicates with thousands of satellites. Some of the space agency missions are the most fun: Gaia, Integral, Mars Express, International Space Station, Dragon.

Alice – What is the most exciting part of your job?

Ian: Getting involved in large, international collaborations that require lots of parts to work together – and seeing them happen. Variety. International Travel. Working with brilliant people.

Elliot – Do you have a favourite planet?

Ian: Apart from Earth, Mercury is pretty amazing: It’s possible to see it in the sky (just after sunset or before dawn) but it’s always so close to the horizon it’s easy to miss – so brilliant to find it. I’ve only managed to do that a few times in my life.

Mars would be a great place to live. The day there lasts 24 hrs 37 mins – so an extra half hour in bed every day!

Miss Barrie – What is one of the biggest problems you have had in your job and how have you overcome it?

Ian: Problem: How to create a successful business providing communication services to NASA (That’s never been done before – because NASA uses their own antennas). How to Overcome: Develop a plan and expect it to go wrong. Keep taking steps. Find ways to survive. That involves learning lots, doing other things that are related but can work in their own right, sidestep problems, work hard, keep going!

Mrs Duff – What’s the worst part of your job?

Ian: Having to do the accounts!

Justin – What does it feel like to connect to a satelite in space?

Ian: Inspiring