EO Detective ID 511-074-TP-ESA09

What do you work on?

I am an ESA astronaut who spent six months on board the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015–2016. Earth observation is one of the tasks of the ISS. There are fixed cameras on the outside of the space station, but scientists can also ask astronauts to take pictures to support their work. A lot of these requests are for images of geological features, or things related to climate change so, for example, we might be taking photos of volcanic activity, glacial retreat or coastlines – monitoring any signs of change in the environment.

Taking photographs from the cupola is a favourite activity during our time off. While I was in space, I shared a lot of those I took on social media and, when I came back, put some of the most interesting together in a book.

How did you come to be an EO Detective?

When I was very young, I went to airshows with my father and that’s where my fascination with flying began. Of course, I dreamt of going into space but never thought I would.

I left school with three ‘A’ levels and went to Alaska with Operation Raleigh (now Raleigh International) before going on to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. When I graduated I trained first as a pilot and then as an instructor. In 18 years with the army, I flew all over the world and eventually became a helicopter test pilot. Alongside this, I did a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation at the University of Portsmouth.

When ESA announced they were looking for new astronauts, I saw the advert and realised that I had the right mix of skills, experience and qualifications to apply. So, of course, I did – one of nearly 8500 applicants. I retired from the army and got a different job that meant I could keep flying, but that didn’t last long because I got a phone call …

The selection process involved lots of exams testing intelligence and skills including memory, spatial awareness and concentration and then there were medical and psychological tests. After all that, there were only ten of us left from which they picked the final six.

Courtesy Tim Peake ESA/NASA

I moved with my family to Germany to do basic astronaut training in Koln. We had lessons in a huge range of subjects: as well as things like rocketry and engineering, we also studied space law and Russian (definitely my worst subject). There was practical stuff too: survival skills – in the cold, and in a cave system – first aid, rescue diving and, of course, how to move in zero gravity. During advanced training, in Star City and Houston, I learnt how to do spacewalks and also spent 12 days living underwater – like space, this is an environment where you are living on top of each other and dependent on life support systems.

Photography was never really one of my hobbies, so I wasn’t adept with camera equipment and knew little about lenses and so on. I didn’t realise that seeing the Earth from space was going to have such an impact on me until I got up there. As I took more and more photographs and realised the quality I could get and the features I could see on the ground, I became inspired to share it. Of course, taking good pictures while you move past your subject ten times the speed of a bullet is difficult, but I had help from Max Alexander who emailed me with feedback and hints during the Principia mission.

What do the images show?

Courtesy Tim Peake ESA/NASA

It’s striking how you can see the seasons change in space. North America and Canada were white when I first went up in December but, by the time I came back, the snow had melted and the colour changed completely. In Western Europe, it’s the agriculture that’s interesting. We have a lot of rapeseed which, of course, is yellow when it comes into springtime so you really see those visual changes.

Courtesy Tim Peake ESA/NASA

One striking human impact of activity on the environment is the light pollution. We see that every time we have a night orbit. In North America, Western Europe, China, India there are huge areas of light pollution, but Africa stands out as an area where – apart from the coastlines – there is very little.

How is the data you use collected and used?

Courtesy Tim Peake ESA/NASA

On the ISS, we use Nikon D4 cameras which are not modified in any way, although we do try to avoid changing the lenses – dust floats in space, and you don’t want any of that inside your camera. For most daytime shots, the cameras are so good that we can leave them in automatic mode. For nighttime shots we’d use a much higher ISO and adjust the exposure time.

For EO the support from the ground is fantastic. They will tell us exactly what settings to use and also the science and how the photo is to be used, so we have a bit more insight. Most importantly, they will give us lead-in features because we don’t have Google Earth on the space station – just a paper atlas. This means that, as we come towards a target, we can cue ourselves in and identify exactly what it is we’re taking a photograph of.

Tell us about your favourite image of the Earth from space

Courtesy Tim Peake ESA/NASA

I was fascinated by Patagonia, but my favourite photograph from the space station is probably the one of Antarctica because it’s such an elusive target. I waited a long time to see it, even with the naked eye. On that one occasion, the clouds parted and I was able to get an oblique shot.

What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy skiing, scuba diving, cross-country running, climbing and mountaineering.