Hitchin rocket scientist is conscience as LISA Pathfinder probe built in Stevenage blasts off

The mission's official logo.

The mission's official logo. - Credit: Archant

Ever had a completely baffling day at work? Thoughts flying here, there and everywhere with barely a moment to stop? Spare a thought for this Vicki Lonnon – her job really is rocket science.

Members of the Airbus Defence and Space team from Stevenage, preparing to fuel the craft.

Members of the Airbus Defence and Space team from Stevenage, preparing to fuel the craft. - Credit: Archant

Vicki, 31, is soon to return home to Hitchin from Kourou in French Guiana, where her latest project blasted off into space during last night at 1.04am local time – 4.04am for us – after final tests on the launch vehicle. Take-off had been scheduled for yesterday but was postponed at the last minute.

The LISA Pathfinder probe – LISA stands for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna – was built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage for the European Space Agency.

Its goal is to test the concept of gravitational waves in space, orbiting 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth.

Scientists say these tests could lead to a totally new way of observing the universe, or help explain the nature of black holes.

Vicki Lonnon (far left) with the rest of the Stevenage-based team and ESA colleagues.

Vicki Lonnon (far left) with the rest of the Stevenage-based team and ESA colleagues. - Credit: Archant


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The mission, backed by NASA in the USA as well as countries across Europe, is scheduled to last for a year and has a budget of £280 million.

“It’s a technology demonstration,” Vicki told the Comet.

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“This particular spacecraft isn’t going to detect the gravitational waves itself – our aim here is to test out the technologies before the main mission. That’s why it’s called Pathfinder.

“These waves are something Einstein predicted – the last major aspect of his general theory of relativity that hasn’t been confirmed.

Vicki Lonnon.

Vicki Lonnon. - Credit: Archant

“If we can confirm that they exist, that will confirm finally that Einstein’s theory was correct, and that will really influence where we go from here with our understanding of gravity.”

Vicki’s role on the project is quality assurance engineer – which she says essentially equates to making sure everything stays on plan until the probe leaves terra firma and begins its mission.

“I’m the conscience of the guys in assembly, integration and tests – that’s where we actually build the spacecraft, bring it all together and prepare for launch,” she explained.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been this far from home for work.

“It’s a pretty big move. I spent most of this year in Munich, then I was home for a while, then we came out here.”

Vicki has lived in Hitchin since 2006, when she moved from her native Shropshire to start work in Stevenage at what was then Astrium.

She and her husband Keith, who met when they were teenagers in Shropshire, have grown into a high-flying couple – while she’s a rocket scientist, he’s a pilot for easyJet.

Speaking from French Guiana, she said: “It’s hard to believe it’s November when you’re sitting around in 35 degree heat in summer time!”

“My role actually finishes pretty much on launch day – so that’s it for me. I’ll move on to something else.

“But this is when it really kicks off for the scientific community for 2016 and 2017.”

French Guiana borders Brazil and has been a favoured satellite launch for nearly 50 years because it’s close to the equator, has a coastal location and is relatively uninhabited.

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