Making space cool

Hannah Rana stands next to the blue Nasa logo sign. She is wearing a black top and a black Nasa Cap.

31 July 2023

Magdalen alumna Dr Hannah Rana (2017) already has three of the biggest acronyms in science under her belt: CERN, ESA, and NASA. Small wonder she was listed in the Science and Healthcare category of Forbes 30 Under 30. We caught up with Hannah to chat about cryogenics, space travel, moon villages… and making space cool. 

Hannah completed her DPhil in space cryogenics at Magdalen about a year ago, and is now working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developing space detectors and cryogenic instruments. Despite space being incredibly cold (about -270 degrees Celsius, to be precise), the inside of a spacecraft can get quite hot; imagine being crammed into a tiny room surrounded by computers for any length of time. This heat creates something called ‘thermal noise’, which can affect sensitive instruments like telescopes and space detectors, limiting their accuracy and range. Hannah’s groundbreaking work to develop cryocoolers than can achieve sub-Kelvin temperatures (colder than space) will help create the perfect environment for these instruments to see further into deep space than ever before. 

Where did your love for science start? 

My love for science started at a very young age. My mother used to buy us the Usborne books of science, which we would read fondly and discuss new concepts amongst us. At school, I immediately took to classes on science and felt intellectually at home learning subjects like maths and physics. I became fascinated by space and black holes and how to measure them. 

Who are your role models? Was there someone you wanted to be when you were growing up? 

My mother and my sisters have always been role models for me of successful, strong, independent women. I have always looked to their example and sought to emulate their good qualities (love you too, Dad!).

Someone I deeply admire and consider a mentor, teacher and friend is Dr Fabiola Gianotti. She heads CERN, a particle physics lab in Geneva, and is an incredibly wise and exceptional individual, aside from being a top-calibre scientist. I am always inspired by her ability to lead with empathy and wisdom, whilst still being an assertive manager of a place as large, international, and dynamic as CERN. She is the first female to hold the position of Director and be elected for a second term. 

In 2019, whilst at Magdalen, you attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for promising young researchers for an opportunity to speak to 39 Nobel Laureates. What was that like? Did you get any advice on your research? 

That was a phenomenal experience in which I had the privilege to engage in conversation with some of the most brilliant minds in physics. The amount of knowledge exchange that occurred at those meetings was beyond anything I had ever experienced before. I thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation each of the days and received very helpful guiding advice towards my research – from Nobel laureates! I was lucky to speak with Professor Rainer Weiss (Physics Laureate, 2017) again whilst President of the Oxford University Space & Astronomy Society.  

What was your time at Magdalen like? 

I loved my time at Magdalen. Not only is it the most beautiful college in Oxford, in my humble and entirely biased opinion, but Magdalen immediately felt like my home at Oxford. I was an active member of the MCR committee and made some of my closest friends at Magdalen during my time at Oxford. I do also often miss having the luxury of taking a stroll down Addison’s Walk for inspiration to overcome writer’s block! 

Tell us about CERN. We understand you did surface finishing on the Large Hadron Collider

I worked on the surface finishing processes for the accelerating cavities in the LHC – these cavities are what particles pass through within the LHC ring in order to accelerate to very high speeds prior to collision. CERN is one of the most intellectually stimulating and culturally diverse environments I’ve been lucky to immerse myself in. The brightest minds in particle physics from all around the world congregate there. I enjoyed learning something from every person I encountered. 

At ESA, you worked as a thermal engineer on the Luna 27 mission looking for water on the moon. What was that like? We’ve heard something about moon villages. Tell us more. 

Working on a lunar lander mission was a dream come true. It was very exciting to be part of something so large-scale and impactful and to have a seat at the table driving early considerations for the mission concept and design. I was the thermal architect on the project, which meant I was responsible for determining the heat loads that would affect the lander from launch, to orbit around the moon, to landing and operation on lunar surface. Quite a bit of research came out of the project, including developing a mathematical method for modelling the heat load from the thrusters under the lander to LIDAR cameras beneath the lander. The former are obviously incredibly hot, and the latter need to be kept relatively cool in order to operate, and both need to be situated at the bottom of the lander in close proximity in order to fulfil their functions. This meant determining how severe the thruster heat loads would be using fundamental physical modelling and devising thermal protection to account for computed values. Another key consideration that heavily relied on thermal input was selecting the landing site. The permanently shadowed southern craters of the moon make for very cold environments and carefully selecting a region with a terrain that accounted for the various operations of the lander from the thermal perspective was key. I learned a lot very fast and am deeply grateful to have had this opportunity and responsibility so early on in my career. 

Luna-27 aims to land at the Aitken basin on the south pole of the moon and drill for ice. The idea here is to (1) better understand what lies  

beneath the lunar surface and (2) asses the potential for a sustainable water supply on the moon. This would assist establishing a (very futuristic!) moon village. I like to joke that this would be a great future spot for honeymoons. 

What does it feel like to work at NASA? 

Working at NASA is a surreal experience. I enjoy every single day. The people are incredible to work with and the level of ambition here in terms of what can be achieved in space exploration and discovery is unparalleled. I’m only grateful I can make a humble contribution and learn so much along the way. I am also fast learning the differences in American working culture, compared to European! 

We understand you reached the final 6% in the selection process to become an ESA astronaut. Has it always been a dream to go into space? 

It has and probably will continue to be. I’m eager to see planet Earth from up there, and to be able to stare into deep space and bask in the mighty admission of my sheer insignificance that my surroundings compel me to surrender to. I can’t think of a weightier experience (or weightless!). I think that humbling feeling is part of what motivates me in studying space and exploring its vastness. 

I feel very confident we’ll get to a stage very soon where it will be possible for the average Joe to buy a ticket to reach the tip of ‘space’ and view the Earth from beyond the atmosphere. Air travel was eventually commercialised and rendered accessible to the wider public; I’m hopeful the same will happen for space travel. Although it certainly won’t enable travel in a functional sense, in the way air travel does, but perhaps it would serve as a once-in-a-lifetime, slightly expensive day trip. 

You were named Schmidt Science Fellow in June, what does that mean to you? 

The Fellowship is a very unique scheme that allows you to pivot outside of your immediate area of expertise to work on a project that is high risk, high reward and solves a problem in society. I have developed a research idea that will allow me to translate technology and know-how from the space industry to artificial retina development, with the aim of restoring vision to the blind. This is a cause that is dear to my heart and I’m grateful to be backed with funding, support, and training in order to realise this goal. I’m very excited by how this will develop in terms of our ultimate cause, and also, I hope to learn a lot about the art and skill of interdisciplinary science and technology transfer in the process. 

When there’s a will, there’s always a way. I especially salute those who push those barriers and break those boundaries when starting from a much less privileged place!” 

What advice would you give to those who might want to follow in your footsteps, in particular young women? 

Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something. With hard work, commitment, good strategies, and building a strong network, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. I recently spoke at the Oxford Character Project, and the host very nicely summarised the three points I shared in my talk in response to a similar question, which I’ll share here: 

1)  Seek out mentors and role models who inspire you and learn from them. It is important to build a strong network of people who energise you. 

2) If you are in a position to inspire others, make space to have conversations with the next generation of leaders. When you have managed to climb a ladder, don’t pull the ladder up behind you, build more ladders. It is your responsibility to make a better space for the next generation.  

3) When pivoting into a new space, keep in mind your reason for doing so and your passion for why you are doing this. Set goals that reflect this passion. 

What do you know now that you wished you’d know growing up? 

That barriers towards succeeding at what you’re passionate about are often self-created. When there’s a will, and a genuine motivation, there’s always a way. I especially salute those who push those barriers and break those boundaries when starting from a much less privileged place! 

You can follow Hannah on  twitter @spacehannahr