Meet one of the women working with the Hubble Space Telescope

7 Oct 2021

Image: Antonella Nota

Head of the ESA office at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Antonella Nota, shares her favourite career highlights and her hopes for the space sector.

The Hubble Space Telescope is more than 30 years old, taking phenomenal pictures in space since 1990.

It has captured some incredible sights and unearthed some of the mysteries of space in recent years, including one of the fastest comets ever seen, the death of a colourful star in the so-called Rotten Egg Nebula and evidence of water vapour in the atmosphere of Jupiter’s largest moon.

While the Hubble telescope is expected to operate for at least another 10 years, the new James Webb Space Telescope is being pushed as the “largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space” and will supplement Hubble later this year.

Antonella Nota is the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) office at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the scientific home of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope. She is also an ESA project scientist for both Hubble and Webb.

Unsurprisingly, Nota has wanted to study astronomy since she was a child. “I grew up in Venice and the night sky had always been fascinating to me. I was very curious and I wanted to learn more about stars,” she said.

“When I was in middle school, I joined the local amateur astronomer group, and we developed long-lasting friendships, but also I also convinced myself that I wanted to pursue a professional career in astronomy.”

‘As a woman in STEM, you have to work extra hard to be considered and respected at the same level of your male colleagues’
– ANTONELLA NOTA

She said her current role is her dream job, making sure that Hubble, and soon Webb, are prominent in Europe and that the European astronomical community is informed and engaged so that they can fully exploit the scientific potential of both missions.

“I am also responsible for the Hubble outreach effort in Europe, including the dissemination of Hubble results and communications with the astronomical community and the public. I have recently acquired the responsibility of science policies and interactions with the community for Webb as well.”

As someone who always wanted to study the stars, it’s easy to see why this is Nota’s dream job. As a teenager, she was one of the first European women to join the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

Every day has career highlights for her, but one of the coolest parts of her role is the fact that she can use Hubble and Webb for her own science. Her specific interests lie in the areas of stellar evolution of massive stars and young massive stellar clusters.

“I study star-forming regions because astronomers really do not well understand how stars form. In my career with Hubble, I have observed many stellar clusters in our own Milky Way and in neighbouring galaxies,” she said.

“These objects are scientifically very interesting but are also very beautiful, and my observations have produced some of the iconic Hubble images that the public loves, for example, Westerlund 2.”

Westerlund 2. Image: ESA/Hubble

“Also, I forgot to mention that I touched Hubble. This was when it was ready to ship for its 31-year-long mission in space exploring the universe.”

Changes in the space industry

One of the biggest challenges Nota faced in her career was simply being a woman in a world dominated by men.

“As a woman in STEM, you have to work extra hard to be considered and respected at the same level of your male colleagues. The opportunities are just not the same,” she said.

“The situation was really bad when I started, but it has been improving over time, mostly because of the work of people like me and of a few illuminated male colleagues who have wanted to change the playing field for the next generations of female scientists.”

Moves to create more gender balance in the space community have been seen in the last number of years. 2019 saw NASA’s first ever all-female spacewalk and an interview with Kathryn Lueders, NASA’s first ever woman chief of human spaceflight, earlier this year highlighted just how much internal leadership has changed.

“We have a female director of the launch control centre, who will call ‘Go for launch’ on the first flight of Artemis I scheduled for later this year. Our lead flight director is a woman. Three of the four divisions in the Science Mission Directorate are led by women. So, we have a lot of women in leadership positions, but also at managerial levels and on support teams throughout the agency,” Lueders told Siliconrepublic.com.

But Nota highlighted another positive change in the space industry that she has noticed: space is now more accessible.

“The last SpaceX mission, Inspiration4, is a great example of that change. Four people went to space who were not professional astronauts, but people like you and me. The cost is still out of reach for most, but hopefully, with time, everybody will be able to experience the view of our beautiful planet Earth from space.”

With that in mind, the biggest misconception she believes is out there about space exploration is that it is not for everyone. “It will be,” she said.

“Giving people the hope and confidence that the opportunity to explore space is not to be an experience enjoyed by a privileged few –  but will, at some point, become available to all – could potentially become the cornerstone moment of this century.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com