Australian engineer Meganne Christian has worked in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. As a new member of the European Space Agency’s astronaut reserve, she’s ready for the final frontier.
It’s known as “White Mars”.
Concordia Station is a joint Italian–French research base situated on the Antarctic plateau. It sits 3200m above sea level — high enough for humans to suffer the effects of altitude sickness from a lack of oxygen. One of the coldest places on Earth, it is bereft of plant or animal life.
Australian engineer Meganne Christian spent an entire year there, and it was during that time that she decided to seek out an even more remote frontier.
“That’s when I first started hearing rumours that the European Space Agency was going to be recruiting astronauts again for the first time in 12 years,” she told create.
“The European Space Agency [ESA] actually sends a research doctor there every year to do tests on the participants in the winter-over to see how their bodies and their minds hold up during that time, as an analogue for space research.”
One of about 23,000 applicants, Christian faced a long and rigorous selection process that took in everything from medical screenings and psychological tests to group exercises and panel screenings, along with considerations of her academic background, spatial reasoning and logic skills, and lab experience and language ability.
The ESA was also interested in the amount of time the applicants had spent in extreme environments — such as, in Christian’s case, Antarctica — and whether the potential astronauts could act as good ambassadors to the public. It conducted six rounds of tests and interviews, culminating in interviews with Belgian former astronaut Frank De Winne, who is now head of the European Astronaut Centre and Josef Aschbacher, the ESA Director General.
“I got a phone call a few weeks after that interview. I was riding my bike home from work and I wasn’t going to answer the phone because I was riding, but then I saw on my watch that it was a +33 — a French number,” Christian recalled.
“It was the director general inviting me to Paris, saying that I was part of the astronaut class.”
Christian will take up her place as a member of the ESA astronaut reserve in January 2023, which means she does not yet have a guaranteed mission.
“I think in the next few years it’s quite possible that us reserves will be called up,” she said.
“I’m pretty hopeful because the space industry is really booming at the moment, and especially with the commercial space stations coming online as well.”
As she waits to find out whether she will be the first Australian woman in space, Christian and the rest of her class will make annual visits to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne to maintain their medical certification, conduct outreach activities and any specific training the ESA might select.
She will also continue her work at the National Research Council of Italy’s Graphene Flagship, where she focuses on renewable energy. Although her PhD explored hydrogen storage in the nanomaterial field, her work these days is focused on the possibilities of graphene.
“I’ve always been interested in renewable energy technologies in general,” she said.
“I’ve been working on graphene for the past eight years or so, mainly making 3D structures of 2D graphene for things like batteries and supercapacitors.
“But also — and this is where we kind of move into the space industry — I have some space applications in a collaboration within that Graphene Flagship for using graphene coatings to improve the properties of cooling devices for satellites.”
Twenty-two seconds of free fall
It was during the course of this work that Christian had her first experience with weightlessness. Testing these cooling devices required undertaking parabolic flights on a specially designed Airbus A310 that soars to high altitudes before going into freefall.
“These devices are passive cooling devices — they don’t have any pumps or anything like that,” she said.
“[The cooling material is] moving between a gas and a liquid, gas and a liquid, in a loop. So this liquid has to get around the pipe — it’s called a loop heat pipe — somehow, and in gravity that’s doable. But when you don’t have gravity, that’s a lot more complicated.
“So, basically, this porous medium, which is what we were coating with graphene, needs to be able to suck the liquid through to then turn it into a gas and keep the cycle going. And we had to test that that process actually worked under microgravity conditions.”
Christian compares the experience of microgravity to being on a roller coaster, except instead of lasting for a moment, it endures for 22 seconds at a time.
“Over the course of a flight, you get about 10 minutes of zero-G,” she said.
“That floating around is just amazing. And your instinct is to try and swim through the air, which is just completely useless.”
Fortunately, the researchers are restrained with straps as they conduct their experiments, making it a little easier to focus on their work.
“You generally have two or three people working on the experiment,” Christian said. “So for a few of the parabolas you can swap out and go to the fun area.”
Extreme cold, extreme emotion
Those minutes of microgravity were one preparation for the realities of space flight, but the challenges of a long stay at an Antarctic base prepared Christian for extremes of another variety.
“It’s tough on your body because it’s so cold — we got down to minus 104 degrees wind-chill in Celsius. And I was out working every day out in those conditions. And also just the fact that you have 100 days of night is very tiring,” she said.
“But I think the hardest part is the mental part, because obviously you have to get along with these other people. There were 13 of us and we did get along, fortunately. I can see how it could go badly though, if you don’t get along — it would be really tough.
“But we kept up our spirits, we had parties together and made sure that we always had meals together just to keep up that team spirit. But I think one thing to note is that every emotion that you have in that kind of isolated environment is felt more strongly. So if you’re excited about something, you’re really excited, but at the same time, if you’re feeling a little bit lonely or sad, missing home, that’s kind of amplified.”
Christian believes her professional experience helped her adjust to the environment.
“I think that my engineering and problem-solving background really helped in that case,” she said.
“I had such a broad practical background, could use a lot of different instruments, had that problem-solving mindset, which really helped me to be able to jump into a different field — in that case, more or less as a technician. You’re not the one who’s proposing the experiments when you’re there; you’re running other people’s experiments.”
With a year’s experience at “white Mars,” Christian would have no hesitation in putting her hand up to visit the base’s interplanetary namesake. In fact, the ESA asked during her interview if she would be willing to journey to Mars.
“As long as it’s not a one-way trip, I’m up for it,” she told the agency.
“Going there, bringing back some cool results and coming back to my family. Absolutely. And even if it takes a couple of years: that’s fine.”