Space Engineer joins Paihau—Robinson

From designing instruments to measure clouds and dust on Earth, to leading the development of instruments to operate on Mars, Randy Pollock has a wealth of experience in what works—and what doesn’t—when operating in space.

Randy Pollock
Randy Pollock, Chief Engineer for Space

Randy is now bringing his experience from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to Paihau—Robinson Research Institute, where he has just taken on the role of Chief Engineer for Space.

Why here and why now?

Randy and his wife Betina Pavri enjoyed a month-long visit to New Zealand five years ago. “We always wanted the experience of living overseas for a while,” Randy says. “Our son had graduated, and it was a good time in our careers. I’ve always had an interest in teaching so coming to work in an academic institution felt like a good fit.”

Paihau—Robinson’s expertise with high-temperature superconductors (HTS) was also a drawcard.

“There are several potential applications for using superconductors in space, which is something that's not been widely explored,” he says. “You can't build a rocket to get off the earth with HTS because its low thrust won't be able to overcome gravity, but once you're in space, very small forces over a very long amount of time can still make very large changes to your spacecraft’s orbit.

“Paihau—Robinson won a contract about 18 months ago to demonstrate this technology, so they brought me on board. They’re experts in magnets and superconductors but they don't have a lot of expertise in the process of figuring out how to make something safe to go into space—and that's what I’ll be bringing.”

Randy’s wife Betina plans to join him at Paihau—Robinson as their careers have been entwined since they were both studying at Caltech in Pasadena.

“Betina always wanted to work in space and studied at Caltech because of its association with JPL.

“I hadn’t really considered it as a career until I started looking at the options. Caltech had a programme called engineering applied science, which means ‘you've taken so many classes we're tired of seeing you here, would you please just leave’!

“I took classes in math and physics, and all sorts of different engineering fields. I had an interest in optics and astronomy and took a class in remote sensing for space applications because Betina had taken it and really enjoyed it. That was my first exposure to doing work in space.”

Randy’s first major role was as a systems engineer working on the Atmosphere Infrared Sounder (AIRS) for JPL.

“A systems engineer is supposed to know just enough about all the disciplines—thermal, electrical, optical—so that they can make sure that all the parts of a project work well together. My background of having taken a few classes in everything was a good lead into this! I didn't have to be an expert in any one area, but I could at least speak their language well enough to help translate their needs to the next engineering discipline’s level.”

The mission objective of AIRS was to measure the temperature of the atmosphere as a vertical profile in roughly one-kilometre steps, covering the whole planet twice a day. “AIRS, in its first few minutes of operation, took a year’s worth of measurements compared to what weather balloons can do and has been credited with adding about three more days to typical weather forecasts.”

That is not its primary role, however, as Randy points out. “While AIRS has this benefit for the weather forecasting community, its primary science goals were to understand how different parts of the atmosphere interact and how heat moves through the atmosphere, and to be able to look at climate change questions. It just so happened that it was a fantastic advance in weather forecasting!”

AIRS is now 20 years into its six-year design life and is about to end because the spacecraft is running out of fuel to maintain its orbit.

Lost in space

Falling out of the sky or running out of budget are just two examples of the hazards that need considering when designing for space. Three of the missions Randy has been involved with have failed to make it far enough to get useful data.

These included a joint mission with the UK looking at radiation effects on various technologies, where the spacecraft was lost, and Cloudsat, a project to measure the vertical profile of clouds—a structure which is critical to understand for climate models because thick clouds trap heat in a very different way to multiple layers of thin clouds.

“That project ran into money problems and my instrument got deleted to save money,” Randy says. “It’s an unforgiving business!”

His third project that didn’t make it into operation ultimately had a far more successful follow-up. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was the first attempt to measure CO2 concentrations with sufficient precision to detect carbon sources and sinks on Earth.

“There's a huge natural seasonal carbon cycle of plants—particularly in the northern hemisphere because there is so much more land there,” Randy says. “The simplest example of this is that in spring, plants’ leaves come out and as the leaves grow, they suck enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere. The leaves fall, decay and release a lot of that CO2 back into the atmosphere.

“It is huge, but in terms of the change in the amount of CO2, it is tiny—only about 8 [parts per million (ppm)] in the current total of about 420ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere—a very small signal on top of the annual cycle. The mission’s objectives were to watch this process to get a better understanding of the natural process that the human release of CO2 sits on top of. The human process is reasonably well understood, but the natural process is not.”

Unfortunately, the first OCO mission was lost when the rocket’s nose cone failed to open, but the project continued, and OCO-2 was launched in July 2014. “It has been a fantastic success. We’re measuring things much more precisely than what was in the mission objectives. And it's been up there now long enough to start looking at the variations from year to year, looking at the effects of a dry year in the Amazon or the US Pacific Northwest versus a wet year, for example. Scientists are starting to tease all that apart.”

A similar instrument, OCO-3, was adapted to work on the space station where it has been since its launch in 2019. While its goals are similar, this instrument can be pointed to look at specific areas, such as large cities, whereas OCO-2 takes in large slices of the planet from pole to pole. The value of OCO-3 is that data from areas that have been comprehensively measured on the ground can be compared with those where ground measurements are more difficult.

“Often the measurements from space are not as accurate as those you can make if you send people out to touch whatever they're trying to measure,” Randy says, “but what they do is measure the whole planet. On OCO-2 and OCO-3 we even used a ground validation site, based in Lauder in Central Otago and run by NIWA. It’s the only one like it deep in the Southern Hemisphere so it is very important to the mission.

“You can take these very detailed, very exquisite measurements and demonstrate that, from space, you can look down and get close to the right answer. Once that is done, you can trust the measurements across the whole planet.”

Measuring Mars

From measuring the Earth from space, Randy’s work then moved to measurements on the ground… but on Mars. He was the chief engineer on an instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals).

“The goal is to look for things that might be indicative of life,” Randy says. “The instrument will not be able to prove there was something alive in a particular rock, but SHERLOC will help identify the most interesting specimens, so the next mission that goes up knows exactly which test tubes to bring home for study.”

Randy’s latest project is due to launch to meet up with the International Space Station. The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) will study the minerals lifted into the atmosphere in Earth’s dusty regions.

“Climate models right now do not really understand how different types of dust work in the atmosphere—whether they tend to cool or warm it. While dust is not thought to have a major impact on the climate in and of itself, the uncertainty is huge, so EMIT is going to fly for about a year just to be able to understand the characteristics of dust in desert areas so that when that dust gets lifted by winds, the climate models will have a much better idea of its impact.”

Randy is looking forward to bringing his experience of managing the risks of science in space to the work at Paihau—Robinson.

“It takes years and years to get something ready to go on a rocket. And so, if something goes wrong, it's years and years before you get to try again.

“It's an issue of managing the risks; you never catch everything, but you can try and make sure you catch the things that are going to end the mission.

“The thread going through my career is that I like to work at the intersection of science and engineering. I’m an engineer by training and a scientist by application. I've been on the science team for OCO and I’ve worked science algorithms but I like being at that intersection between the research aspects and the engineering aspects of things.”

A delight in the practical aspects of engineering is also evident in Randy’s interests outside work.

“Betina and I spent a huge amount of effort on our house in California,” he says. “By the time we left we had solar panels all over the place and designed some custom structures to help them operate more efficiently. We had solar hot water, and an extensive rainwater collection system.”

The couple also converted a 1975 Porsche 914 to run on batteries in the early 2000s. It has since been upgraded and is still being used by their son in New Mexico.

“I’m someone who hates inefficiency. Any place we can make something more efficient, that’s where we’ll be!”

In 2023, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington will become the first university in the country to offer an undergraduate major in Space Science. The major will give students a broad understanding of what it takes to get into space—from science and technology to the big issues behind space travel.