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Curiosity and cutting-edge robotics target a way to clean up the space junk beyond our skies.

Everything Natalie Panek had done in her life was with the singular goal of going into space. When finally ousted from the Canadian Space Agency’s latest astronaut recruitment campaign, the aerospace engineer sought solace in Earth’s most beautiful places, bookending her days helping design and build robotic tools to refuel dead satellites and the ExoMars rover’s chassis and locomotion system with weekend backcountry adventures. Reoriented towards this planet right here, she has become a voice for the wilderness of space, that we might balance all our extra-terrestrial exploring with a fierce commitment to leaving no trace.

When the topographic maps arrive, Nat Panek will spread them on the kitchen counter in the Toronto apartment she shares with her partner Cam, and she’ll plan out a multi-day backpacking route. (It’s possible she might do a little airjump – she does love maps.) The pair wants to circumnavigate through the mountains where her parents frequently camp outside Calgary, Alberta, the wilderness in which her dad can find mushrooms and huckleberries and elk and fish with such intuitive familiarity that his directions for places to explore are anecdotal at best.

It’s the place Nat first lay back, with her younger and older brother at each side, and gazed up at the stars and thought, there, there, there. There is where I want to be.

25 years later, she’s charting a mission to explore here, here, here, to travel with her best adventure-mate, up and over each peak, all the way around. Natalie Panek never met a mountain she didn’t want to stand on top of. “She gets summit fever,” nods Cam, her partner of a decade, with an equal mix of exasperation and admiration. If she can’t power straight up, if she’s trapped in Toronto in their apartment at the end of a work-day, she’ll pull out her skipping rope and jump for an hour. 15 minute intervals. 12,000 beats. So far she has worn eight jump ropes right through.

Natalie Panek’s favourite places on Earth are the wildest ones: Greenland, Baffin Island’s Akshayuk Pass, Patagonia, the Yukon, Alaska, areas around the Crowsnest Pass.

But the destination she really dreams of visiting? Mars.

She’s spent enough time imagining it, driving to work along the dark Toronto highways at 6 am, to beat the traffic, launching her mind every day beyond the atmosphere of Earth, out where rovers will trundle across the surface of Mars, out in the orbits full of satellites that ring the planet.

Working in Mission Systems at MDA, a robotics engineering firm in Brampton, Ontario, Panek was part of the Canadian team that worked on the chassis and locomotion system for the European Space Agency’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars Rover. The rover’s frame, legs, wheels, and all actuators were shipped to the European Space Agency in March 2019, to be integrated with the rest of the Rover for a launch in July 2020. It will be the first rover on Mars able to detect biomarkers and possibly answer the question: was there ever life on Mars?

Every step in the mission of landing that rover on Mars in early 2021 has had to be pre-envisioned. “We often build products that are the world’s first,” says Panek, “that nobody has done before, and that need to operate in really extreme environments.” To test their hardware, Nat and her colleagues have to recreate and simulate all those environments.

“For a rover to get to another planet, it has to first survive the launch from Earth into outer space on a rocket that’s vibrating really quickly in different axes – it’s a pretty violent ride,” Panek explains the sequence of problems the engineers are tasked with solving. “Once it’s in space, it has to survive the cruise phase to the other planet – nine months of radiation and the vacuum environment. And then it has to survive entry, descent, and landing on the surface. Finally, it has to be able to operate in the environment of Mars over the duration of its life – temperature swings from -130 degrees up to, once the motors are on and turning, +80 degrees, having Martian soil get into the wheels or Martian dust blowing around the mechanisms. We basically test for all of those environments, every phase.”

She has spent most of the past 4 ½ years alongside a group of talented colleagues applying a combination of intensive research, engineering and brilliant imagination to the task. It’s only inevitable that an adventurous Sci-fi-loving space nerd might imagine herself there too.

In early 2017, the year she turned 32, Natalie Panek received notification from the Canadian Space Agency that she was no longer a candidate to be one of Canada’s two new astronauts. She had spent many months in the recruitment process –making it to the final 100, selectively chosen from nearly 4000 applicants.

The Space Agency’s medical staff connected the white streak of hair she has sported since she was 8 years old, with a potential immune system issue. “You chase this goal for 25 years. And then it’s over. Not from anything you did wrong. Just circumstances completely out of your control.”

A few days later, the rejection in hand, an existential crisis lurking at the gates, her partner Cam went off-script: “Let’s just book a flight to Calgary and go home to the mountains.”

“Are you serious? Get on a plane? An hour from now?”

“Yeah! Let’s do it.”

And there, in the mountains, the first place that wild spaces grabbed her heart, she had the space to think. To think about everything she needed to and about nothing at all.

Panek committed to a year of adventure therapy – to head out of the city every weekend – to heal her broken heart. More than 40 adventures later, something shifted.

She fell back in love with the earth.

“In a way, it’s made me feel more connected to Earth. Wanting to become an astronaut was always the ultimate adventure for me – the adventure that could not be capped by any other adventure. I wonder if, in a way, that took away from appreciating all of these other small adventures that I had here on Earth. Now I feel like I’ve kind of gone back to seeing the value and the joy that every single one of those trips brings to me.”

With each visit home to Calgary, whether she was staying with her parents, or staging an adventure from their house – picking up gear from the garage, and sandwiches and snacks her mom would lay out, no matter the hour – Panek observed the micro-hints of parents getting a little bit older. Her father spends more and more time out in the bush, alone, well out of cell service range, so at Christmas she bought him an inReach.

She activated the satellite communicator for him, pre-programming it so with the touch of one button, he can alert her mom, her two brothers who live nearby, and her across the other side of the country, with pre-set texts. If he sends “Elk down”, those two words will trigger a sequence of actions from her brothers to follow the specific coordinates and go and help him pack the meat out of the bush. “All good” means he’ll be staying out at least another night, in the wild landscape he knows as if it’s his own backyard. “Coming home,” means put the coffee on in a couple of hours.

Panek knows the message will route from his inReach, up into the nearest of the Iridium satellite networks 66 low-earth orbiting (LEO) cross-linked satellites, pinging through a constellation of technology, down to their four different phones, where the message will appear within seconds on their phone screens. She also knows that when those satellites die, without infrastructure in space to repair or recycle them, they will be abandoned. Of the nearly 5000 satellites currently orbiting the planet, only approximately 1950 are actually operational.

In 60 years of space activities, humanity has left 8400 tonnes of space junk into the orbits of Earth, debris that now adds up to tens of millions of fragments spinning around the planet at eight kilometres a second – dead spacecraft, nuclear reactor coolant turned into frozen droplets, bags of garbage jettisoned by the Mir cosmonauts, tested anti-satellite weapons, abandoned rocket boosters, a wrench, a toothbrush, cameras, rocket debris, fragments from satellite collisions – all threatening spacecraft, and sandblasting solar panels and telescopes. But a ‘business as usual’ attitude to deploying more technology and failing to clean up abandoned trash is increasing the probability for a catastrophic collision. The low Earth orbit could become so polluted with debris as to become unusable.

For ten years, Panek has worked on-and-off on projects to build robotic arms and robotic tools that could service and repair satellites in space. “What I’ve come to love so much about this work is that it’s trying to hold us accountable for taking care of the environment that we explore. People familiar with the outdoors grow up with this idea of leave no trace and taking out everything you take in, but we don’t treat space exploration that way. Everyone gets super excited about planetary exploration missions or space telescopes, or launches of new satellites which are totally awesome and I’m all over that. But at the end of the day, we’re leaving rovers that are no longer working on another planet or dead satellites orbiting Earth. Just out there. Bits of metal. We might be exploring, but we’re also polluting. What holds us accountable for all the space junk and the satellites that are powering every bit of our lives? What is the balance between what we learn from these missions in exchange for what we leave behind in pursuit of that knowledge?”

There isn’t a technical solution yet that can provide regular and routine servicing for defunct spacecraft in space, and policies for orbital debris mitigation are in the form of guidelines only . But through her advocacy, Panek might be poised to contribute to space in ways she would never have been able to, were she in Houston right now, undergoing intensive astronaut training. Sometimes the solution first begins in switching the way humans think.

Humans have long glorified the idea of being an explorer. The explorer who goes first. Who conquers without consequence.

“I started calling myself an explorer, and then immediately afterwards felt really awkward about it. I’m not going on remote expeditions for famous outdoor organizations. I felt a bit fraudulent.

Then I realized that the world needs more everyday explorers, people who question the information presented to us and have awe and wonder for the world. Daily curiosity for what is all around us. This is exploration at its core.”

If one could tune into the conversations pinging through the thousands of satellites orbiting Earth, we’d hear all human hopes and drudgeries in an endless cacophony of snapchat runs, emojis, love messages, texts, vital signs, visiting the orbital wilderness for seconds before being relayed back to earth.

Ever since her first camping trip gazing up at the stars, Natalie Panek has known in her marrow, that her responsibility and obligation for the privilege of enjoying that space, is to leave it undamaged. To leave no trace of her venturing, behind.

And perhaps this is the best legacy any of us can leave – no trace at all – but the opportunity for those who come behind us to experience a beautiful place, a spectacular planet, an incredible vista, as if they too were the first.

Watch the full length episode of, “Natalie Panek: Wild Space” here!

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