Leicester graduate launches space career with NASA

A University of Leicester graduate has described the ‘dream’ of finding out he’d landed a prestigious research position with NASA.

Daniel Watters completed his Masters in Physics and Astrophysics in 2017 and is entering the final weeks of his PhD research position in the University’s Earth Observation Science Group.

And the experience will help launch him into his space career, after winning a prestigious NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, USA, to continue his research into space borne precipitation observations.

Daniel said:

“For sure, it’s like a dream. I always liked Maths and Physics, so when I was deciding which course I wanted to do, I looked for something where I could apply the skills I had learned for other applications.

“I’d always had an interest in space, but I knew that Leicester was great for space science when I started looking for universities. It was brilliant to see that my home town university was so interested in space science and had active researchers working on international missions.

“When I first saw the email that I’d been accepted by NASA, it was a feeling of disbelief. Just unbelievable. I can’t wait to start.”

During his undergraduate and Masters studies, Daniel was a member of the Space Crew at the National Space Centre and also completed placements in the University’s Earth Observation Science Group, which also hosts the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO).

There, he started research into satellite observations of precipitation across the globe, focusing on comparing data from NASA and the Japanese Space Agency’s ongoing Global Precipitation Measurement mission with readings at ground level. He continued:

“My area of research in particular looks at how satellites perform in their measurements of precipitation, and what’s called the diurnal cycle – or daily variation – of rainfall and how that varies across the globe.

“Ultimately, it’s these climate models which are simulating how future climate change will occur and which will inform Governments’ policies.
“Historically these models have struggled to capture the daily variations of precipitation, and part of my work has been to use this satellite data to provide excellent coverage across the globe.”

The Fellowship lasts up to three years and will take Daniel to NASA’s largest single facility in the USA, where scientists and engineers are also working on the Space Launch System which will take humans back to the Moon.

But it won’t be the first time he has had a brush with an astronaut. Daniel added:

“Actually, on my undergraduate course there was an astronaut called Jeff Hoffman who came in to teach a module on human spaceflight, so I got to attend his lectures and at the end of the module we had feedback from him.

“To even be in the same room as someone like that was unbelievable.”

Daniel’s PhD project is supported by supervisor Dr Alessandro Battaglia, the Earth Observation Science Group, NCEO, and part-funded by the Central England NERC Training Alliance (CENTA).

Professor Emma Bunce is Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester and President of the Royal Astronomical Society. She said:

“All of us in Physics and Astronomy are delighted for Daniel to be accepted on to this prestigious Fellowship. His hard work and dedication to his research area in the Earth Observation group have been evident during his PhD, and the opportunity to continue this with NASA is fantastic reward.

“Daniel has studied with us at the University for his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and will join many successful Physics and Astronomy alumni working in the space sciences around the globe. He also serves as inspiration for physics students coming along behind wondering where their degrees from Leicester will take them – clearly they should aim high!

“We’d like to wish Daniel the very best in his future space endeavours.”