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Dr Helen Walker

Space telescopes, satellites and women and astronomy 2009

5 February 2009

I was always interested in science. When I was 13 the chemistry teacher smoked a glass plate for me so I could look at a partial eclipse of the sun, and I would get out books on astronomy because they intrigued me even when I couldn’t understand everything.

I went to an all-girls school. Among the piles of careers leaflets there was one on astronomy. It made me realise a career was possible. In those days only five universities did astronomy, and I went to St Andrews in Scotland. It was unusual because it had a whole department for astronomy, and a big telescope.

To begin with there were 62 people on the course, but that diminished as people dropped out until there were four of us and I was the only woman – and I won the class medal! I went on to be part of a four-year research project looking at a group of stars that are very peculiar because they have no hydrogen (other stars are almost all hydrogen). These stars have dimming episodes and my observations on their variability meant one of them got a new name: PV Telescopii . I didn’t get to choose the name, sadly.

I joined a team in London building instruments, and later I moved into satellite operations and infrared astronomy which changed my life.

Right now I am at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories where I help with observations for the Mars Express satellite. It was launched five years ago, and has generated wonderful images and lots of information. I also lead a team for the European Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2013.

Its International Year of Astronomy 2009 and as President of the Society for Popular Astronomyhttp://www.popastro.com I’m heading up the Telescopes for Schools initiative. Through the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Royal Astronomical Society we are giving 1000 telescopes to 1000 schools, and through the year we will be tracking what they achieve. It’s a really exciting project with people like Maggie Aderin and Sir Patrick Moore on board.

The other important initiative for IYA 2009 is ‘She is an Astronomer’. Worldwide, women are in the minority in astronomy, and its particularly marked when you look at more senior positions. We want to raise awareness of the contribution of women. We launch She is an Astronomer internationally on 9 March, and the UK launch is in London on 12 March. I hope blog readers will come along. After the launch, the international website will have news and resources about women and astronomy, and you can visit the UK IYA 2009 site as well.

Dr Helen Walker is Senior Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, Chair of the Committee for Women in Astronomy and Geophysics and President of the Society for Popular Astronomy. She is chair of the international She is an Astronomer committee, part of IYA 2009. 

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