Ariadna Farrés: "As a society, we must consider what we want to do in space"

04/04/2024 - 13:11 h - Science Ajuntament de Barcelona

She is a specialist in astrodynamics and holds a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Barcelona (UB) since 2009, where she studied the dynamics and orbital control of solar sails in the Terra-Sol system. Currently, she works in the Flight Centre at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre with the Flight Dynamics and Mission Design team, on projects such as the Space Weather Follow On (SWFO) and Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST). She was also part of the Hypatia I crew that performed a simulated mission on the analogue station at the Mars Desert Research Center and will be the Hypatia II commander at the same site. We took advantage of this new adventure and her participation in the institutional act in the Saló de Cent during the  International Mathematics Day to talk about her career, her involvement in NASA and the present and future of the space world.

Ariadna, you chose to study mathematics, why? Have you always liked it?

I have always liked science, and mathematics had an abstract component that attracted my attention from the very beginning. I was lucky enough to have a very good maths teacher in high school, and I remember having a lot of fun thinking about how to solve the different problems in class. Maybe it sounds a bit geeky, but finding the point of intersection between a plane and a straight line was one of my favourite challenges. Reading the advertisement, working out what information it had, deducing the rest to be able to apply that formula and find that point, I found it fun. I decided to study mathematics because I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand where those formulas came from. And now, looking back, I was little aware of everything that was behind the world of mathematics.

You work at NASA as a mathematician, was it your dream?

Actually, yes, it was a dream. One of those things that you dream about, but you’re not really aware of how you can make it come true. So much so that, at some point, you stop taking steps in that direction, at least consciously.

I have always been fascinated by space exploration and when I finished my mathematics degree I wanted to study something related. I started a PhD in dynamical systems and astrodynamics, branches of mathematics that help us study how a satellite behaves in space. This allowed me to get to know people in the aerospace sector and discover how I could make small contributions. At that point, if someone from NASA or ESA read one of my papers, I was happy.

What has been the way to achieve this?

At one point in my scientific career, while I was waiting for a decision on a position as a lecturer at the University of Barcelona, I went on a four-month stay at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and that changed my life completely. The stay went very well and I intended to create a collaborative link with them from the University. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the position as a reader, but NASA offered me to come back for seven more months to finish the project I had started that summer. Those seven months ended up turning into six years in which I have been collaborating with them on different projects.

What is your work there?

I am currently part of the flight dynamics team at Goddard Space Flight Center, and I am working on two space missions, the Roman Space Telescope and the Space Weather Follow On. My job is to design the trajectories and manoeuvres that these space telescopes must follow to carry out a mission. In other words, I design the path they must follow through space and assess how often their engines must be turned on and off to reach our destination in an optimal way, minimising fuel consumption as much as possible so that the mission can last for as many years as possible.

How can mathematical knowledge be applied to space missions?

In many ways. Mathematics is actually one of the tools we use the most to solve the problems that arise on a space mission. To give a few examples: finding the optimal trajectory between two points, calculating the manoeuvre needed to keep a satellite in orbit, re-entering a satellite back to Earth, calculating the minimum number of satellites in an orbit to have 24-hour coverage of an area…

You took part in the institutional event at the Saló de Cent on International Mathematics Day. What did it mean to you to be chosen as a speaker on this important date?

It was an honour to be chosen as a speaker for an event like this. I had the opportunity to address the entire mathematical community of Catalonia. Among the people attending were former colleagues from the department and professors I had worked with during my degree. Being able to explain my career, the impact mathematics has had on my professional life, the Hypatia project and everything it has meant to me was fantastic. It always makes me very happy when they contact me to talk about mathematics, and to be asked to do so by the Catalan Mathematical Society is a plus.

You were one of the female crew members on the Hypatia I mission, a similar mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. What was your experience like?

It was an unforgettable experience that marked us all. The days on the station were a gift and it will surely be the closest I will ever get to being an astronaut. They were very intense days in which everything happened very quickly. We had daily routines of station maintenance, scientific experiments, extra-vehicular outings, reports at the control centre on Earth, without forgetting our basic needs of eating and sleeping, of course.

You were one of the female crew members of the Hypatia I mission, an analogous mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. How did you live the experience?

It was an unforgettable experience that marked us all. The days on the station were a gift and it will surely be the closest I will ever get to being an astronaut. They were very intense days in which everything happened very quickly. We had daily routines of station maintenance, science experiments, extra-vehicular outings, reports at the control centre on Earth, without forgetting our basic needs of eating and sleeping, of course.

What did you do as a mathematician on the station?

Each of us had a different science project. In my case, I focused on navigation, on how we could set up a low-cost Martian GPS that would allow us to find our way around the Martian sun safely. The project also had an educational aspect that made us reflect on what tools we have to find our way around and how they have evolved over time. We are now very accustomed to using Google Maps, but this has not always been the case. What would we do if we did not have these devices?

Anyway, you have to understand that as a crew member on a space mission, our role was multiple, as we had to make sure the station was functioning properly. In my case, I was the crew health and safety officer.

As much as it was a simulation, did you have the feeling that you were in a Martian environment? What were everyday situations like there?

I really did. Once you’re inside the station and you look out the window, you have the feeling that you’re on Mars. The fact that you go outside in the astronaut suit makes it very realistic. During the extravehicular (EVA) sorties we had a radio and we had to talk to the people at the base constantly to report the situation in case of any mishaps. During the day, each of us would focus on our science experiments and spread out in different areas of the base. At midday and in the evening, we would sit around the table and share our experiences while eating dehydrated food, which was one of the only things we could cook.

You will be the commander of the new edition, the Hypatia II. What changes does this new role entail? Will you be doing the same as in the last edition?

As commander I will be in charge of coordinating the crew. It’s quite a change from what I did on the last expedition. This new role will allow me to explore my leadership skills. Hypatia II will also be a similar mission with an all-female, multidisciplinary and intergenerational crew. But the science projects we carry will be different. This year, for example, we are adding a geologist and two female aerospace engineers. We will try to continue some of the projects we did on the first mission and open up new lines of research.

If you could go into space for real, would you go?

Of course I would! It’s one of my dreams. If I were called to go on the next probe to the International Space Station or to the Moon, I think I would say yes without hesitation. What would worry me most would be the implications that such a trip would have on my body. For example, being in microgravity for a long period of time has implications for our bones and muscles. But I am fascinated by the fact that I could see the Earth from the outside and I am sure it would be another unforgettable adventure, just as Hypatia was.

What would you say to a girl to encourage her to study mathematics so that she can cross the barriers she encounters when she grows up?

I would tell them that it is a very beautiful career, that they should enjoy it to the full. I’m sure there will be hard moments when they won’t understand anything, but that’s normal and has happened to all of us. In these moments, you just have to be patient, don’t be afraid to ask questions and keep trying. Don’t let that initial frustration hold you back. Throughout life you will always come up against barriers, but if you stop and look at them calmly, you find a way to jump over them and continue on your way.

It is surprising that this expedition involves all Catalan scientists. How do you see the sector in Catalonia?

We shouldn’t be surprised. In Catalonia we have great talent and there are exceptional women in different STEM fields who make great contributions.

So, do you think there is a network with potential in Catalonia in terms of space missions?

The aerospace sector in Catalonia is growing. We have little tradition in this sector and probably, for this reason, in the past many of us have had to go abroad to work in the sector. But this is changing. I see that the administrations are making a lot of efforts to promote the new space sector and create an ecosystem that can attract talent with the creation of start-ups. I am very hopeful and eager to see how it evolves.

As a mathematician involved in the space world, what are your goals for the future?

Right now my immediate future is to see the two missions I’m working on get off the ground. One is planned for mid-2025 and the other for 2026. I have been actively involved in both missions in the design of the trajectory and the manoeuvres needed to achieve the mission objectives and I will be looking forward to seeing how it all goes from paper to space.

How do you see the future of space?

I think the next few years will be very active. My parents experienced the special race first hand. During the 1960s, man landed on the moon for the first time. Since then we have come a long way and have sent probes to visit almost every planet in the solar system, but I think the general public is not always aware of what this entails.

Now, over the next few years we will see the first woman setting foot on the Moon, the creation of a space station around it, and missions that are sure to re-engage the public’s interest. We have very powerful telescopes making observations, such as James Webb, that will surely make us rethink some theories about the Universe. Not to mention the private sector with Space-X and Blue Origin who want to make space “accessible to everyone”. I think we will hear a lot of talk about space and its accessibility and that, as a society, we need to consider what we really want to do in space.