It’s quite plausible that Tim Parsons is the only Australian technology specialist who can lay claim to being part of a research team that has helped improve safety for spacecraft re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I was always interested in space, I always wanted to go into space,” says Parsons, who has an aerobatic pilot’s licence and a PhD in aerospace engineering from Imperial College in London.
Although Parsons clearly didn’t quite make it to the outer edges of the Earth’s atmosphere and into space, he certainly assisted those who did.
Now chief innovation and operating officer and formerly CTO at struggling online movie and TV service, Quickflix, Parsons spent four years in the early 1990s conducting algorithmic and computational research into stochastic Direct Simulation Monte Carlo-based aerodynamics modelling at Imperial College.
He was part of a research team used this to predict 3D flowfields around transatmospheric aircraft and spacecraft travelling at hypersonic speeds.
The team used computers to simulate gas flows at high altitudes where the physics of these flows is different from the “viscous flow” below 60 kilometres from the Earth’s surface.
“A vehicle like a Mars probe travelling at orbital or sub-orbital speed or entering [the atmosphere] from interplanetary space, is generally doing between four, eight or even 12 kilometres per second and at that speed you only need a few molecules per cubic metre and you will set off chemical reactions in the very fringes of the atmosphere,” says Parsons.
“The heat that is generated is huge; airframes weaken and holes can open up in the fuselage, which is what happened to one of the shuttle missions.” Parsons is referring to Space Shuttle Colombia, which broke apart on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
The end goal for the team was simply to make it safer for manned or unmanned spacecraft on re-entry to an atmosphere. By modelling missions, such as the recent Mars landing, scientists can predict temperatures and determine the correct vehicle shape and what type of shields are required.
“One of my colleagues at Imperial I think ended up going to JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States for robotic exploration of the solar system], with the codes that we worked on together, which I believe are used today,” says Parsons.
The research has enabled NASA to successfully execute several Mars missions that have aerobreaking – a method of slowing down a spacecraft using the atmosphere or outer gas layers of a planet – at their core.
“Curiosity was the classic case where they '“aerobraked' on direct entry [to Mars’ atmosphere] and that reduces the weight of the vehicle by up to 50 per cent because you don’t need to take the propellant with you to do a retro-burn when you get to the other end,” says Parsons.
“You don’t have to accelerate halfway to Mars and then have all this propellant to slow down [the vehicle] at the other end – you actually use the atmosphere and the aerobrake.
“You could send men and women to Mars and they could aerobrake when they get there and come back and aerobrake to Earth – which had a massive impact on mission cost.”
A hunger for business
Despite his background in aerospace research, he chose to pursue a career in IT and as an academic, he had very little knowledge about the business world.
“The culture of aerospace at that time – when you’re not involved in it you imagine how incredible it must be – the reality was that it wasn’t a great time to be in aerospace,” he says.
“It was giant waterfall projects, you were going to be a small cog in a gigantic machine. At the time, it [aerospace] was all big companies and very institutionalised. I looked at the internet world: it was Altavista, Yahoo and Google.
“I thought I would get stuck [in aerospace]. I was at British Aerospace for a while and I saw how incredible the people were because of their knowledge and what they could do – they could have done a moon shot but the impetus was not there.
“I came back to Sydney, I didn’t really want to get a job in research – I’d done my dash there. The interesting problems were online with new technologies.”