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Sit Down with .... Angela Teale on being a space engineer and her lead role in the SKA-Low Telescope project

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Kate CampbellGeraldton Guardian
Angela Teale, head of engineering operations for the SKA-Low Telscope.
Camera IconAngela Teale, head of engineering operations for the SKA-Low Telscope. Credit: James Campbell

Picture a “rocket scientist” and what do you see? A balding, bespectacled man in a suit and bow tie writing algorithms on a blackboard? Or a mad scientist-type with wiry white hair type working away in a lab?

Well, Geraldton has its very own rocket scientist, although best not to call her that to her face. And she fits none of the above descriptions.

She is a petite, friendly and personable woman in her late 30s, with a disarming American accent. A working mum who is busting myths and stereotypes, and inspiring others about what women can do in the field of STEM, in particular, in arguably the coolest STEM arena — space.

In specific terms, Angela Teale is an expert in space systems, with her favourite field being astrodynamics. She recently took up the role of head of engineering operations for the SKA-Low Telescope, a project that has the potential to unlock some of the universe’s biggest mysteries and of which a crucial part is located in WA’s Murchison outback.

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As a young girl growing up in a small “middle of nowhere” farming town in Inwood, Iowa, Ms Teale had a fascination with rockets and was and still is a self-confessed “space nerd”.

Her parents served in the Air Force, starting out as aircraft mechanics or crew chiefs for F-16s. “They’re both very hands-on, tinkering people . . . we would build model rockets as kids, which was awesome,” she said.

She recalls one particular rocket which she and her parents worked on — a six-foot carpet tube — with a homemade engine and parachute, and ignited by a car battery, which was launched thousands of feet in the air. Ms Teale dreads to think what laws that would break today.

The young American was also inspired by the Apollo 13 movie released in 1995, but she didn’t envisage herself as one of the astronauts stuck in space. “When that came out, I remember seeing the flight director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) and thinking I don’t want to be an astronaut, I want to be him, he’s doing all the cool stuff, he’s the one solving the problems,” she recalled.

Initially, she wanted to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps of becoming a nurse. Her Italian immigrant grandma put herself through university and wound up being in charge of the New York Department of Health.

But at her first sight of blood, Ms Teale knew nursing wasn’t for her. Rather, she turned her focus to technology.

At 18 and without a clear career in mind, she joined the Air Force, just like her parents. Testing indicated she would be suited to being a flight nurse (“definitely not!” was her reaction) or a role where she would communicate with astronauts, which quickly won her over.

Eighteen months after basic and technical training — learning all about orbital mechanics and satellite systems — Ms Teale had her first posting, and she ended up spending eight years in the Air Force. One of the last things she worked on in the Air Force was astrodynamics and she loved it.

“Astrodynamics is all about launching and manoeuvring . . . from getting the spacecraft off the ground to its position in orbit, keeping it where it needs to be, where it needs to point and then thinking about the disposal of it, which either you bring it back down or you push it out,” she said.

One might ask what drew an American space engineer from the US Midwest to live and work in Geraldton in WA’s Mid West. But the answer is simple — love.

Ms Teale met her future husband Peter online, through their mutual love of skydiving. After she left the Air Force, he convinced her to come to Australia to meet him.

“The second I got off the plane, I was like, ‘that’s my husband’, and he felt the same. So yeah, it was love at first sight,” she said.

Their relationship was FIFO and long distance for a number of years while Ms Teale finished her degree and took up jobs in the US private sector. But eventually she made the move to WA and fell in love with her husband’s hometown of Geraldton.

But at the time, she was convinced she would need to make a career sacrifice, not believing there would be any space industry opportunities in this part of the world.

But as fate would have it, the same day their offer on a house in Geraldton was accepted, Ms Teale’s father sent her a job ad for the satellite tracking station at Mingenew and one of her old bosses was doing the recruiting.

Now with five-year-old daughter Victoria and her space career still in orbit, it’s obvious the big decision to move to Australia has paid off massively personally and professionally.

Some of the “awesome” achievements so far in her career include being handpicked for an Air Force team working to protect national assets and helping spearhead the Beacon platform — a first of its kind “communication, collaboration and coordination” system for satellite operators “so that satellites don’t hit each other”.

Sounds like a worthy accomplishment, given how much we rely on satellites in our day-to-day lives. “We touch space 10 times before we even get into our car in the morning,” she said.

Now in her new role, Ms Teale heads a small team of about 10 based in Geraldton, at a makeshift base in Wonthella, working towards getting the low frequency telescope project up and running and maintaining it.

A couple of prototypes have been built, but construction of the 131, 072 antennas that resemble little Christmas trees isn’t that far away.

“The reason I came here is really to inspire and bring along a team to be just as excited about space as I am. That’s where I’m at now, just being able to give back to the community,” she said.

“I get to work on the world’s largest science project, which is pretty exciting. Some of the science things we get to do have never been done before.”

Ms Teale needs to hire a team of about 40 people and she is focused on growing her team locally. “I’ve been talking to the TAFE, looking at apprenticeships and traineeships, so that if people are interested in coming into the space industry I can help bring them along.”

Ms Teale and her team will next year undertake one of the last antenna verifications before the antennas are built on site over the next few years.

It’s hoped the project, which has a lifespan of 50 years and has built strong working ties with the the Traditional Owners of the Wajarri Yamatji land, will be fully operational within the next eight years.

The 130,000-plus antennas will be spread between 512 stations covering a collection area of 400,000sqm. The project also includes “dish” telescopes to be set up in South Africa.

The telescope will be able to explore the faintest echoes of the universe’s origins, watch the births and deaths of the first stars, help further understand how the earliest galaxies formed and possibly answer the biggest question of all — are we alone?

“It should map the reionisation of the Earth . . . there was a point where everything exploded, there was no ionisation and then everything reionised and planets started forming and galaxies,” Ms Teale said.

“It will give us insight into the origins of the universe, there’s the possibility to find extra-terrestrial life and then there’s all the cases that we don’t know what we’re going to use it for because it’ll be that sensitive.”

Ms Teale is excited about how the project is embracing its local community. “It gives everybody a chance to be involved, learn about space, and be proud of something that’s going to be locally built — the largest low frequency radio telescope in the world,” she said.

The antennas collect and send on radio waves as signals to smartboxes at each station and then on to off-site processing facilities, which when combined will allow the telescope to be digitally “pointed” in multiple directions in the sky. The telescope can then “search within beams for pulsars and other transient phenomena and time them accurately”.

After 20 years experience in her field, Ms Teale is used to often being the only woman in the room. But she is quick to say many women, not just those in STEM careers, have at some point felt “underestimated”.

“I think the only negative — if you can even see it as a negative — is just having to work harder to prove yourself. But in the end, that just makes you better at what you’re doing,” she said.

“I would say, if anything, it’s a positive because it makes you really darn good at what you’re doing. And I think the benefit of being the only person that’s different in the room is that people remember you.”

Ms Teale said most people’s reaction when learning about her career was one of surprise. “Awesomely, that’s getting less because more people are getting into the space industry,” she said.

“But I will try every way I can to get more women and girls involved in science and STEM. I think (it’s so great) because you can literally create or do anything you want.

“It’s nice to see people doing the things that you want to do. So hopefully I can provide that for somebody.”

Ms Teale is trying to teach her young daughter how cool science and space is — whether it’s regularly checking out the space station in the night sky or informing her that building a chicken coop is a feat of engineering. “But I’m skirting the boundary of not pushing it too hard so she doesn’t hate it.”

Young Victoria is definitely displaying interest in her mother’s profession although she perhaps thinks her mum wields more power than she actually does. After spotting some 3D imagery of the Earth on her computer, Victoria asked: “Mum, are you controlling the Earth right now?”

Ms Teale said sparking a love of science can start from just simply teaching kids about how things work. She recalls back to her own childhood, when her father bought her a computer but gave it to her in parts so she had to put it together herself.

And it’s not only women and girls she’s inspiring into space. Her husband, a former production technician at Woodside, has recently started his own space-related business.

Despite working in the industry for 20 years, Ms Teale has never made it to space. “There was a long time where I didn’t want to . . . but now I would love to go . . . selfishly I would love to bring Victoria along with me,” she said.

Ms Teale says one of the biggest misconceptions about the space industry is that you need to be a rocket scientist to be part of it. “Really, you can put the space spin on most careers,” she said.

She accepts rocket science is a basic way of describing what she does, but baulks at the suggestion that it makes her some kind of genius.

“Even when people are like ‘oh, are you a rocket scientist?’, I want to say no because I don’t want to seem snooty or whatever it is,” she said.

“To me, it’s just formulas, it’s just maths.”

Formulas and maths that have the potential to answer some of the universe’s most difficult questions.

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