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Science, Maths & Technology

OU Lecture 2007: 50 Years of Space Exploration - Meet Professor Zarnecki

Updated Tuesday 26th June 2007

John Zarnecki has had an astonishing career. We profile the man chosen to give the 2007 Open University Lecture.

Professor John Zarnecki giving lecture Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

When young John Zarnecki went to see the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, in 1957, he decided that, one day, he too would go into space. His application to be one of the first European astronauts was turned down but he has made major contributions to space exploration as a creator of instruments that map and measure comets, planets and stars.

ESA Royal Astronomical Fellow

Professor Zarnecki is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and has received awards from both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). He is a member of a variety of national and international advisory bodies in the field of Space Research and is currently involved in developing several instruments for the ESA’s ExoMars mission.

A star student

After reading Physics at the University of Cambridge (1968–1971), John Zarnecki did PhD research in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London. He stayed at UCL to work in the field of x-ray astronomy, developing instruments to measure the emission of x-rays from supernova remnants.

A high flyer

Moving to British Aerospace in Bristol, John took responsibility for the low-light-level TV system, part of the Faint Object Camera which was one of five scientific instruments on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. By the time it was decommissioned in 2002 this camera had carried on working for nearly 12 years and had become the longest operating camera in space.

Meteoric career

In 1981 Professor Zarnecki moved to the University of Kent where he worked until 2000 and was the Project Manager for the highly successful Dust Impact Detection System which flew on the European Space Agency’s Giotto spacecraft and passed within a few hundred kilometres of the nucleus of Halley’s Comet in 1986.

Open doors

Later, he moved to the Open University with several colleagues from Kent, to form the UK’s largest research group in planetary sciences.

To Titan and beyond

His research interests continue to centre on space instrumentation for Solar System studies. He is Principal Investigator for the Surface Science Package, one of the six scientific instruments on the Huygens Probe, which touched down on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, on 14 January 2005. He played a major role as co-Principal Investigator of the Environmental Sensor Suite on the ill-fated Beagle 2 and as deputy Principal Investigator for PTOLEMY.  John is co-Investigator for MUPUS on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet lander, which is currently on its way to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.


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