An interview with Oliver Turner: From Exoplanets to Satellite Landings

This World Space Week, we are going to be focusing on some of the fantastic talent within Space Forge. If we want to do amazing things, we have to have amazing people, and many members of our team have an entrepreneurial streak - developing their own research and even companies.

Oliver is part of our team here at Space Forge, and has done some incredible work before he came to us. 

Could you introduce yourself?

“I’m Oliver Turner, I am responsible for writing the landing prediction software. I am also responsible for putting together our aerodynamic model that we are going to be using for our satellites in the higher region of the atmosphere.”

What would you say your biggest accomplishment is?

“On a more personal side, my family. My wife and I were able to get married in January 2020 before everything went crazy. And then as of two years ago today as of recording we had our first daughter. Our second daughter was born about a week ago!

Academically, professionally. Exoplanets were my thing. So, I, as of last count, contributed to the discovery of 40 exo-planets. Having checked as a bit of prep, that has gone up now, as I contributed a type of data that can be used long after its creation. 

One of my favourite things that I have worked on were a couple of planets in a system imaginatively called TOI-402. They are a couple of super-earths. Not big enough to be Jupiters but bigger than earths. They were the smallest planets that I personally worked on.”

How did you end up getting into Exoplanet discovery?

“I actually got into Exoplanet research because training to be a teacher was too hard. I tried to do a PGCE, but it didn't take. Teaching is really not my thing. 

So I fired off a couple applications to do PhDs, and got into one of them. I started working with a consortium called the Wide Angle Search for Planets, so if you ever hear of a planet called WASP, those are the people responsible for it. I worked in photometry; this is a method where you observe the brightness of a star and how it changes when a planet passes in front of it. You can start discovering really interesting things about the planets, and even the stars themselves. 

I did that, I did my PhD in Keele. I did a post doc in Geneva in Switzerland. It was a lot of learning on the job really. I didn’t have these skills before I started, but a PhD is all about developing and stretching and learning.”

Why Space?

“Space is cool. Space captured my imagination when I was little. There was a documentary called Planets - it has really good visuals and great explanations on what was going on and what was being observed. 

But also there is more than a little bit of sci-fi in there - exploring strange new worlds, seaking out life. Didn’t sadly get to do that during my PhD but that's probably as close as I am going to get.”

What was your biggest challenge in discovering these planets?

“One of the challenges was practically doing it. For photometry you want to determine the brightness of the star really accurately to see how it changes as the planet passes in front. But the atmosphere is in the way, and stars twinkle. Both of those can lead to really big variations in the stars brightness that aren't anything to do with the planet. 

The clever way of dealing with that is by looking at other stars nearby, as their light has to pass our atmosphere as well, so they should twinkle in roughly the same way. Given that you have got an ensemble of stars that are all twinkling in roughly the same way, you can subtract that net twinkling to see the dip in brightness as the planet transits.”

The other challenge was timing. You are observing planet transits from the ground so you need it to be night, you need a star to be visible from where you are, you need the transit to happen so you can see some of the transit before or after. Getting all these things to line up in a way that means you can make a good observation can be really tricky. It was a lot of maths and some cajoling here and there.”

Do you use any of the skills that you learned at Space Forge?

“There is some reasonable overlap. The timing is a similar issue working with our landing prediction software. We are essentially giving our satellite a little bit of a kick so it falls from orbit, and then we aren’t controlling them from that point. We need to predict very accurately where they’re going to land, and where giving that kick will give the best result. The timing factors are very similar. You have the earth which is rotating, the satellite which is orbiting around the earth. If you have a destination or location, you need to find an area that lines up with not only where you want to be but when you want to be there. Like if you want it to be daytime when it lands, if you're targeting a particular stretch of ocean in our case. Sometimes The way these orbits and movements line up you'll have 2 or 3 opportunities in a day, sometimes it will be one every few days. So there is a bit of an overlap there. 

Another similar skill I have used is the methodology behind how we determined planets parameters and how we are going to determine where we are going to land. The jury is out on whether the universe is deterministic but even if it is, we don't have the precision to say where exactly we are going to land. 

We don't know what the atmosphere is going to do on that day, for example. There are a lot of factors that are very difficult to control, and a lot that are very difficult to model, and to get around that we are going to have the aerodynamic model of the satellite as well as our atmospheric model. Instead of doing just one simulation, we are going to do a whole bunch of them. We took a similar approach for finding planet parameters, we applied them to the planet, and if they fit, great, and then we do it again. If the next ones fit better then we accept those. There's more nuance there but it's that idea. By simulating lots of satellite reentries, it lets us account for some of the uncertainties in where we’re going to land. We’ll get a probability distribution about where we’re more likely to land and where we will not.”

What advice would you give for future space scientists?

“Don't be afraid of taking long shots. I thought when I was going for my PhD that it was a long shot; I felt pretty late to the game. But I got it. 

Many of the observations that I have made have been longshots. They’ve not worked out more often than they have, but when they do, they're very good. Even applying to Space Forge I looked at the job advert and I thought it seems kind of mad, it seems like a long shot, but here I am. It's not gonna happen 100% of the time, and when you fail it doesn't mean you've failed. Some things are out of our control. 

But don't be afraid of trying.”

If you’re thinking about doing what Oliver has done, he has shown that it’s never too late to harness your entrepreneurial spirit in space - even if you feel like something is a longshot, shoot for the stars!