Black excellence

Fatoumata Kebe, 29, is a French astronomer on a mission to clean up space with her groundbreaking research

ON A MISSION: Fatoumata Kebe

THIS IS Fatoumata Kebe, a final-year astronomy student on a mission to clean up space.

The 29-year-old, who works on space debris, is just months away from collecting her PhD from at Observatoire de Paris and Université Pierre et Marie Curie.

Space debris is the traces of human activity in space, all the things left there.

“Bits of rockets, for instance,” she told Clique.tv. “My work focuses particularly on what happens when these objects collide and explode. For example, I try to determine how many pieces of debris an object will split into.”

Fatoumata decided this was the subject for her after completing a programme at NASA.

“Over there, I took a space environment course on the subject with an engineer from the European Space Agency. I liked it because, at the time, I was torn between space and the environment, and here was a subject that dealt with the environment in space.”

There are currently two million pieces of debris orbiting the Earth, so, according to Fatoumata, a need for her expertise will be around for the foreseeable.

“We leave traces everywhere we go: there is plenty of work to do.”

She adds: “A 5 cm piece of debris in space has about as much energy as a bus. And it can have very serious consequences.

“The space around the Earth is too cluttered. We can’t send up any more rockets or satellites without risking them being destroyed by debris.”

Working in astronomy was a “childhood dream” for Fatoumata. She found pictures of stars and planets “fascinating”, but didn’t know how to get into the profession.

“After focusing on science subjects at school, I went off to university. I did a Master’s in fluid mechanics, but as that wasn’t sufficiently space-oriented, I did courses at the European Space Agency, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), etc. I then went off to Japan for a year to learn about space engineering and building nanosatellites.”

She is currently writing her PhD thesis and hopes to officially become an astronomer.

On perceptions of astronomy being a male-only profession, she says: “I think the problem is a wider one. There is a problem with women in the sciences, from high school onwards. Once you get to university, the numbers of women dwindle over time. There are very few of us left by the time you get to post-doctoral level.”

“A lot of girls around me have said things like, ‘Fatou, I want a family life’. Girls lack self-belief in this field.”

She admits people have tried to discourage her, but she is defiant and admits, “I’m against positive discrimination, so it’s quite difficult.”

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