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By Mikayla Keen 11 January 2023 3 min read

It’s a homecoming on two fronts for Dr Mark Cheung, the new Deputy and Science Director of our Space and Astronomy team.

Building a space career

Mark spent his childhood in Darwin. After his family moved to South Australia, Mark enrolled at the University of Adelaide to study physics and astronomy.

“My family and mentors encouraged me to pursue my interests exploring the cosmos. I was the first in my family to complete a graduate degree,” Mark said.

During his undergraduate studies Mark completed two summer internships with us.

"Participating in CSIRO’s summer student program opened my eyes to STEM career opportunities beyond the traditional academic trajectory," Mark said.

"There are so many different types of STEM careers, some in science-adjacent roles, where you still apply those analytical skills and tech know-how."

Mark joined the panel on the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast episode, which was recorded at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in November 2022.

After completing his undergraduate studies, Mark headed to the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany to pursue graduate studies on magnetic activity of the Sun.

"There weren’t many opportunities in Australia back then, so I opted to move overseas to continue exploring space," Mark said.

Working in Europe, and then in the United States, Mark always kept a look out for opportunities to return to Australia. In 2022, the perfect opportunity arose.

“Not only was it an opportunity to come home to Australia but also back to CSIRO. There’s nowhere like it in the world,” Mark said.

Space enthusiast from an early age

Mark’s earliest memory of his passion for space was from primary school. He was given a book showcasing the planets observed by NASA’s Voyager missions.

"During recess, I would be flipping through the book instead of running out on the oval," Mark said.

"One of the first things I did when I came back to Australia's national science agency was to visit the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. We manage this on behalf of NASA – it's one of the three stations that make up their Deep Space Network.

"It was an unforgettable moment to be in the control room when one of the antennas made contact with Voyager 2. This spacecraft is 20 billion kilometres away from Earth and is still calling home."

The Deep Space Network tracks dozens of space missions, among them are more recent missions like Solar Orbiter, a young mission compared to Voyager.

"We provided key optical components for Solar Orbiter[Link will open in a new window]. Our aim is to be a scientific partner for future missions," Mark said.

In his previous role, Mark led the instrument and science team for the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) onboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. AIA is one of three instruments onboard the space observatory that is monitoring how the Sun’s activity changes.

The Sun influences Earth’s environment and can impact aviation, satellite communications, and even our power grids on the ground.

"This is why there are teams around the world – including the Bureau of Meteorology's team of forecasters in Adelaide – that use images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory to track when solar storms occur."

The 200 millionth image captured of the Sun by the AIA in November 2019.

Growing Australia’s space industry

In addition to leading space weather and astronomy research, Mark is working with Aussie scientists to explore our Universe. He hopes to inspire more people to pursue STEM careers and grow the Australian space industry.

“Space isn’t all about rockets and astronauts. Australia in particular has a lot to contribute to the global space industry," Mark said.

"We have radio astronomy and mineral resource expertise, which can be drawn on for the new wave of space exploration.

"We have world-leading data analytics and expertise in calibration and validation for the Earth observation satellites which provide vital information for weather prediction, land and crop management and monitoring floods or bushfires.

“Australia needs to equip the next generation with the STEM skills to build spacecraft payloads, operate our ground stations, and to analyse the data to make scientific discoveries and informed decisions for the benefit of our nation," he said.

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