Planetary scientist and space weather guru Professor Suzie Imber was the winner of BBC2’s Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? series in 2017 which led to her being recommended for joining ESA by Commander Chris Hadfield. Suzie worked as a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and also studied at University of Leicester as a postdoctoral Research Associate where she is now Pro-Vice Chancellor. She also worked on the instrumentation for ESA’s current BepiColombo mission to Mercury. 


When did you first fall in love with science and space exploration?
I really loved hearing about stories of exploration while I was at school, particularly the stories of the early antarctic explorers.  I gradually became interested in physics, reading popular science books about astrophysics and space science, but wasn’t very good at science until I reached my A-levels.  I started really enjoying physics at University, and when I went to NASA to do a summer internship in planetary science, I realised that this was the area of research that I enjoyed the most.


What is planetary science?
Sometimes the difference between astrophysics and planetary science can be a little confusing, and there’s definitely some overlap here.  Astrophysicists generally look at the larger scales in our Universe, so distant stars, galaxies and other systems and objects.  Planetary scientists are primarily trying to understand the formation, evolution and dynamics of our own solar system, although the overlap with the astrophysicists is that we’re both interested in understanding exoplanets – planets that we have discovered orbiting stars outside our solar system.


Why is ESA’s BepiColombo such an important mission?
BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA).  It’s the second mission to ever orbit the planet Mercury, and the beauty of the mission is that it’s composed of two spacecraft which separate upon arrival at Mercury and orbit the planet at different distances.  This is absolutely vital for understanding both the surface formation, composition, and evolution (the inner spacecraft), the magnetic environment and the tenuous atmosphere (the outer spacecraft) and the interaction between the two regimes.


What was the toughest part of your astronaut training?
Some of the tests were really challenging, and in such a variety of ways.  Physically, the bleep test is brutal, and the centrifuge is amazing, but pretty tough on the body too.  Mentally, the uncertainty is the hardest part as we never knew what was coming next.  Having no feedback is also a huge challenge, as I began to doubt my performance continually.  I had never scuba dived before, so the underwater tests were a new challenge for me, and getting to grips with scuba diving in an environment like that was not easy.  Finally, I’m a little squeamish, so taking my own blood was interesting!


We hear you like to sleep on mountain tops in your spare time?
Yes!  I am a high altitudes mountaineer, and I spend several months a year in the high mountains of the Andes.  I combined my love of mountains and my scientific skills to write some computer code on our supercomputer to automatically identify all of the mountains in the Andes, and in doing so discovered lots of mountains that hadn’t been climbed before, many of which had no name.  I now head off with my climbing partner Max for first ascents of these mountains whenever I can!


• Suzie will be talking about planetary exploration and ESA’s mission to Mercury during Session 1: Space Academy. Get your tickets here!