Have you got what it takes to be the next Cosmonaut?

Blog, Glossary

Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS this week announced the opening of the next selection programme of cosmonauts (Russian astronaut) see: https://twitter.com/roscosmos/status/1135521818301870083

Don’t read Russian? No problem, I have you sorted:


You’re welcome! Applications are accepted from Russian citizens between now and 1 June 2020, and at the end of it there will be 4-6 newly selected Cosmonauts! Could that be you?

Interestingly they require a minimum footsize of 29.5cm… I wonder what that could be for?

Whilst here you know see the entry requirements for a Russian Astronaut, in my upcoming youtube video, I’ll be talking about what it takes it be an astronaut in general, so if you don’t follow my youtube channel yet, you really should!


Problems with binning data


I learned early on in my PhD that binning is not a good idea. The loss of information from binning will lead to biased results. Here I demonstrate this with a simple linear regression toy model.

#generate toy data
x = runif(nc, 13,15)
y = 22+1.5*x+rnorm(nc, 0,0.5)

#bin in y variable
nbin = 10
ybins = seq(min(y), max(y), length.out = nbin)
ybinned = sapply(1:(nbin-1), function(z) mean(y[which(y> ybins[z] & y <= ybins[z+1])]))
ybinnedx = sapply(1:(nbin-1), function(z) mean(x[which(y> ybins[z] & y <= ybins[z+1])]))
#bin in x variable
xbins = seq(min(x), max(x), length.out = nbin)
xbinned = sapply(1:(nbin-1), function(z) mean(x[which(x> xbins[z] & x <= xbins[z+1])]))
xbinnedy = sapply(1:(nbin-1), function(z) mean(y[which(x> xbins[z] & x <= xbins[z+1])]))

plot(x,y, pch=20, cex=0.1)
abline(a=22, b=1.5)
points(ybinnedx, ybinned, pch=20, col='red')
points(xbinned, xbinnedy, pch=20, col='blue')


As seen in the plot, if we bin based on the y variable (red), we will bias our estimation of the slope and intercept whereas binning in the x variable (blue) does not incur this problem. This is because the intrinsic scatter is applied only to the y variable.

The problem intensifies when observational uncertainties are included in the x and y measurements. By modifying the following lines in the code:

#generate toy data
x = runif(nc, 13,15)
y = 22+1.5*x+rnorm(nc, 0,0.5)


#generate toy data
xtrue = runif(nc, 13,15)
ytrue = 22+1.5*xtrue+rnorm(nc, 0,0.5)

x = xtrue + rnorm(nc, 0, 0.5)
y = ytrue + rnorm(nc, 0, 0.5)

we obtain a plot such as the following:


Now a bias is seen binning in either x or y. Whilst this may have been exaggerated to large uncertainties for clarity, it is usually more common in Astronomy to bin when data is noisy! A good project for the keen and eager then should be to investigate a way to bin such that the measurement uncertainties and scatter are taken into account so to avoid such biases, but unfortunately I already have too many projects to work on…

How to get a job in Astronomy


I’ll be finishing my PhD soon and as this approaches, let me tell you this… STRESS. I should be focussing on writing up right now, NOT worrying about the stability of my future. But if you find yourself in a similar situation then hopefully this post can come in helpful.

When I first started my PhD, my supervisor warned me I probably couldn’t stay in academia. In general academia employs a fixed number of staff, so if you want to stay in academia, then you will be waiting on a faculty member to leave. My supervisor had over 50 students before he retired, this means that on average 1/50 PhD students would get a job in academia. What’s worse is that of the 15 faculty in my research group, 0 are women.

I recently attended a student research conference and it was really nice to see the lined up keynote ‘Post-doc jobs in Astronomy’ – it lied. The entire talk was focussed on how I will ‘never’ get a permanent job in Astronomy. According to the talk out of 120 PhDs, 60 will go on to have post-docs, and <10 will get permanent positions. People are now spending longer in post-docs so expect to spend 6+ years without a permanent position and moving jobs every few years, that is if you can get one. Longer post-docs mean that we are competing against more people with more experience.

So I am going to tell you the opposite. You will get a job in Astronomy if you want one, and I will help you make that decision, with the following guide:

Choice making time:


– You survived and proved all those who doubted you wrong.
– You can work your way up to Professorship
– Flexible work hours
– Outreach is encouraged!

– If you like research, then this one isn’t the choice for you. Academics do most of their research through their students. Most of their time will be spent on teaching and paperwork.
– It will take along time to work your way to your top, and you will spend a long time in contract before you get the permanent position
– You may have to relocate several times before you settle down.
– It may be difficult to buy a house without a credit rating with all the moving around

Fellowships – These are highly competitive, usually the more prestigious ones will lead to permanent positions. Some are assigned to a specific institution but some allow you choose where you do the research. The great thing about fellowships is that you have the freedom to do the research you want to do, and are in charge of your money. The not so great thing is that the applications involve a lot of input and you need to be self-dependent. The fellowships that allow you to choose universe will usually also require you to first contact that University and you will need to rely on them to help you complete the application.

Examples: Marie curie, Astrofit2, STFC Rutherford, NASA Hubble, ESA, ESO, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Newton international, Leverhulme Early Career, Royal Society, Junior research fellowships at Universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial.

Research Associate – Positions advertised by individual university departments. These usually involve you working on specific research set out by your boss. These are advertised at each University approximately every 3 years when their consolidated grant round comes in.
These jobs are usually advertised on the AAS job register https://jobregister.aas.org


– No teaching
– Full time research
– Usually get to try out lots of areas of science
– Easier to climb to equivalent of Professor role
– Usually higher salary than post-docs

– Won’t get Professorship
– 9-5 job
– You won’t be an expert in any one thing
– Many are located abroad where the research is collected

Try the AAS job register, STFC, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory


– Won’t need to relocate
– High salary
– Your work will probably be more applied
– Permanent position

– 9-5 job
– May or may not be in your research area but will utilise the skills you picked up


Other things to think about:
– Its difficult to stay in academia if you have a partner because you will be moving every few years. It will be even harder if you are both in academia…

– Will you be happy to start a life somewhere away from your friends and family?

– Make sure your CV is optimised for your job. Don’t include too much public engagement activities unless outreach is part of the job description.
– Apply for as many things as you can, but only the ones you want. Usually this will take a month out of your life!
– Use your networking to your advantage. Contact people you know to ask if they know any jobs going? They will usually help you out.
– Ask your supervisor/collaborators to look over your research proposal, they can help you improve!

I will keep updating this as I think of more so please check back now and again. Hope this was useful.

Astronaut Andreas Mogensen


Earlier this week I visited ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. I’ve been very fortunate for this to be the 3rd time I have been to facility. The last time was pretty cool – I mean, it’s not every day you get a personal tour by ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, especially whilst he’s preparing to go to space!

Well last week, Andreas Mogensen finally made his debut space flight to the international space station. For those of you who don’t know much about Andreas, here’s 5 facts that you really ought to know:

1. He was joined the European Astronaut Corps in 2009 and has been training for 6 years for his 10 day journey aboard the ISS

2. He is the 1st astronaut from Denmark and to celebrate the Danish company LEGO made 20 custom LEGO figurines to keep him company whilst in space. The LEGO toys will be prizes to kids that can come up with the best video of Andreas’ story

3. Originally his trip to the ISS was supposed to take 6 hours but instead it took 2 days to avoid space junk, that’s a long time to be stuck in the Soyuz – It’s a 5th the size of the shuttle orbiter!

4. When Andreas and fellow crew members boarded the ISS, they brought the total number of inhabitants up to 9. The ISS was only built for 6 astronauts!

5. His main task is of course science. These include testing a new water-cleaning system, hands-free goggles similar to google-glass, a tight-fitting suit that mimics the effects of gravity and controlling rovers on Earth to prepare for future missions on Mars.

At EAC, I was given the opportunity to sit in on a conference call with the ISS and space agencies from around the world. It was unbelievable that I was on a LIVE chat to all 9 astronauts in space! Space has never seemed more close than in that moment and it is a memory that I will cherish always. Follow Andreas’ journey on twitter @Astro_Andreas.

Quarantine in Baikonur

3 nights as an astronomer


Welcome to Chile!


I had the rare opportunity to go observing on the 4m Blanco telescope on Cerro Tololo, Chile. The telescope itself was built in the 70’s so its mind blowing that it is still functional today. This telescope like many other similar oldies are constantly given new life with the instalments of new instruments. Right now, that would be DECam, a CCD imager who’s scientific purpose is to understand the cosmic acceleration.

I took the evening shuttle up mountain, with wild horses, goats and cacti of all shapes and sizes making appearances along the way. It is amazing the infrastructure they have in place here. The roads carved into the endless ripples of dry, desert hills. The journey took about 1.5hrs from the local town La Serena but would’ve taken a lot longer on donkey-back as they did back in the day. The facility on the mountain was impressive, it was fully equipped with internet, water and electricity and the meals were delicious. Every night whilst observing, the cooks would prepare us a night lunch – it was definitely needed. It’s currently winter in Chile which means the nights are long.


In between the hills you can clearly see the fog that is the inversion layer.


Evening twilight on Cerro Tololo, both observatories shown aren’t the ones I worked in but were just as impressive.










Just before night-fall, I would walk the path up to the observatory. The observatory is huge! i could actually see it, miles away whilst driving up the mountain. A shining orb of the knowledge to come, the dome is made of a reflective material in order to maintain the cool temperature within. At 7.30pm, I would head outside to watch the sunset. It was beautiful every time. The hills below were endless and engulfed within a hazy fog they call the inversion layer. If the inversion layer were not present, we would be able to see the south pacific ocean, however it would also mean bad weather to come. As the sunset, the snow-topped mountains would light up pink, twilight begins. Back in the control room we had to wait until the sun was 14 degrees below the horizon before we could begin. Once it did however, it was non-stop until 7.30am the next morning! Thankfully the observatory was fully equipped with a kitchen and toilets and the main thing was that it was warm!

Each night, I would take a break and go outside. It was always pitch black, which was quite worrying since I’m sure countless individuals have blindly stepped off the mountain to their deaths. The skies were unbelievably clear whilst I was observing, and it was easy to see the milky way. In deserted locations like these, where the light-polution from civilisation is non-existent, there are always countless more stars than the eye can see. Just before morning twilight, I observed for the first time the zodiacal light – a hazy glow in the east caused by scattered sunlight off interplanetary debris.


Dr Chris Lidman and I and the 4m Victor Blanco Telescope

For my observing run, I was accompanying Dr. Chris Lidman, a staff scientist of the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). This gave me the opportunity to tour the telescope itself! Up 5 levels in an elevator is where the telescope lives. It was gigantic! In fact below the telescope there was a net to catch people in case they fell off! Mounted on the sides of the dome were 2 giant white screens that would be projected by LED lights for flat fielding. The floor below was the aluminizing chamber where every 2 years the mirror is dropped down and slid into. Here the old aluminium surface is removed using hydrochloric acid and a new aluminium layer is deposited. The whole process takes 6 days! The telescope is also regularly cleaned by CO2 and is carried out by walking onto the mirror itself! Another interesting thing I found was the cryogenic pump. This pump is used to maintain DECam’s temperature and is constantly roaring day and night. It kinda sounds like the Tardis. This amazing piece of equipment needs maintenance every 7 months, costs $35,000 and will put the observatory out of use for a week.

I was lucky enough to get 3 clear nights of observing in total and am very sad to leave. However I really need to catch up on some sleep now. Adios Chile.