Representation and Space: An interview with Professor Lorraine Hanlon

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Jade Norton, in conversation with Professor Lorraine Hanlon, discusses her work with the European Space Agency, her current research, and thoughts on women’s representation in physics.

Professor Lorraine Hanlon is a lecturer and researcher in the UCD School of Physics. She graduated with a Bachelors and Masters in Experimental Physics before going on to work for the European Space Agency (ESA). Hanlon touched on many topics during our interview including the research that she does on gamma-ray bursts using the Integral satellite, as well as her thoughts on gender in physics and corporate sponsorship of space.

Hanlon got involved with the ESA after moving to the Netherlands to complete a research fellowship. Her passion for physics was there from day one but it was not until her masters, that she got involved in space projects and ".. got really excited about the connection between physics and space exploration".  Her work with ESA continues to this day alongside her lecturing in the School of Physics.

Hanlon also works as the lead professor in Ireland's first satellite EIRSAT-1. Ireland's membership in the ESA allows Irish students to have advanced opportunities in space research and EIRSAT-1 is a small cube satellite that allows for a deeper understanding of a full satellite in a shorter timeline, requiring fewer resources. There is a huge academic and economic potential when a country engages in space activity and “CubeSats are a brilliant way for students to get involved in the space business".

ESA contains innumerable opportunities for space-oriented people with classic departments in engineering, physics, materials, robotics, structures, and deployable mechanisms such as batteries or solar panels. Hanlon anecdotally mentioned how, during her time in European Space Research and Technology Centre, she used to walk past a door labelled Battery Testing Division and wonder "What on Earth they did there?" when in fact Earth was not the focus of the department at all, as even in space the biggest rockets and smallest satellites need batteries to power them.

There are eight sites across Europe under the umbrella of ESA, with copious numbers of other institutions working to enhance scientific knowledge on additional projects. To any interested student, Hanlon impresses that whatever you are interested in doing, it will be facilitated by the facility that you go to, as each focuses on a particular area and you do not need to know everything before you start. In the end, you may "focus on a narrow area but it is one that you find very interesting". She also mentions that there is ESA Academy that provides training for students who are interested in space which deals with systems engineering, space communication and even space with law.

Physics is a very male-dominated subject and for female students, it can come across as an intimidating environment to branch into. As a highly esteemed female physicist in industry and academia, Hanlon welcomes change to this stereotype but admits that "the pace of change has just not been fast enough" and she has not seen much of a change in the hierarchy during the 30 years that she has been in the industry. She notes that there is a "23-25% female participation in physics and space but there is a big widening of the gap again at senior levels".

The dynamics of female life often cause a dropout in the transition from early career to senior where Hanlon states that: "we lose qualified, capable people - women, because career needs are not met". The one-size-fits-all expectation goes against reality and is not viable if you want more women in the workforce. "You have to acknowledge that there are certain times that [women] are not going to be able to work for family reasons.. and we don't recognise those kinds of breaks as essential for work-life balance". She does note that many major employers such as ESA have taken this into account and have realised that these issues have to be addressed.

"Progress has been slow but finally it’s looks like corporates and big agencies like ESA have realised that they have to do more and do better and do it faster"

Covid has provided a unique situation that has forced much of our work back home but even this has not helped women in some regards as "evidence has shown that it is worse for women working from home because the burden of childcare at home has fallen on [some] women". A lot of this is based on societal expectation and a -"this is how it has always been done" -mentality, which is difficult to go against, but this is an issue that is prevalent across the workforce and not just in physics.

Despite the recent lockdowns, Hanlon’s research has not been overwhelmingly affected, as her research uses data from the Integral satellite which is a large ESA gamma-ray satellite. There was an interesting discovery in April which kept a lot of the scientific research going over the lockdowns, as the data had already been generated and it was a matter of analysing it.

She has also been involved in a study for a new ESA mission called Theseus which is projected to fly in 2032, provided it wins a launch slot. "It will detect gamma ray bursts from the very early universe and allow us to look at some of the very first stars in the universe by using gamma ray bursts to pinpoint where they are". The competitor mission will go to Venus and the decision for this will be made in June. These satellites will then be launched from the ESA space launch site in French Guyana.

Hanlon has worked on the Integral mission since her Master’s days and since it was launched in 2002 - making it already 17 years old. The new Theseus mission is not set to be launched until 2032 and with these long-term missions comes a long-time commitment which Hanlon does not seem to mind as the passion for her subject is evident in my talks with her.

When asked about her opinion of the media-heavy space corporations coming in the future she said; "I worry that the regulation and oversight of mega constellations that SpaceX want to build is very lax.. As what these companies are doing is ahead of where the regulations are and this may destroy the view of the night sky". We have to think of dark skies as a commodity and resource that have to be protected as their loss would also have an impact on radiofrequency. The problem of having space owned by a couple of mega-rice individuals is undeniably dangerous as Hanlon is convinced that "space should be openly accessible democratised access and should not be in the hands of a few individuals to control who can go to space".