John Leif Jørgensen at DTU's mini Moon and Mars landing test facility. Photo: Mikal Schlosser

I’d like to be a space tourist

Wednesday 28 Jun 17


John Leif Jørgensen
Professor and Head of Measurement and Instrumentation
DTU Space
+4545 25 34 48
Five events have influenced the carreer of John Leif Jørgensen from DTU Space. Read how he experienced the Apollo launch and became inspired by Danish adventurer Troels Kløvedal, Einstein, and the night sky.



The Moon Landing

Children did not watch much TV in the 60s, but as a child I remember being allowed to watch the programmes on the Apollo space mission. The moon landing was a drawn-out, fragmented affair. First, they had to make sure the capsules worked. Then the spaceship orbited the moon—and finally, we watched the actual moon landing. I was glued to the screen. The whole family watched it together. We fantasized about one day visiting the moon as tourists.

The landing itself was shown in playback, as in those days there was no such thing as direct TV broadcasts. Nowadays, we’re used to watching live coverage of rocket launches, but at that time the whole thing was very difficult to grasp. I remember my parents discussing how the space capsule could manoeuvre given that it didn’t have wings like a plane. At the same time, I listened very carefully to what was being said on TV. There were quite a few technical facts, so I became a frequent visitor to the library and borrowed lots of books. Slowly, I began to understand what was happening.
Everything was done in a new way, so it was very exciting. I wanted to know how the spaceship worked, and how it was possible to fly to the moon. It was incredibly fascinating. I’d previously read a pile of books about animals and how nature worked, but I was captivated by high technology and how it can benefit society. A moon landing is not just fun and games—that’s why I chose to become an engineer.




Celestial navigation

As a young man, I read ‘Nordkaperen’ by Danish adventurer Troels Kløvedal. I dreamed of circumnavigating the globe just like him. Together with my current wife, I bought a wooden boat and explored every inch of the waters of northern Europe. As we longed to sail further afield, we decided to learn how to navigate properly. We took a yacht skipper exam and were taught astral navigation by Ebbe Jacob—the same teacher who taught Kløvedal how to sail. The technique centres on navigating by the stars. A sextant is an instrument for measuring the angle between the horizon and a celestial body.

It was fun using the old-fashioned way of navigating and I really enjoyed using mathematics to calculate our position. What I did not know as a child was that one of the astronauts aboard the Apollo constantly used celestial navigation. Suddenly, I found myself gazing at the same stars the astronauts on the Apollo mission were using to navigate by.

Without my knowledge of celestial navigation, I would not have thought of developing the world’s first autonomous stellar camera. Satellites and space probes use the camera to orient themselves so scientists always know precisely which way the satellite is facing in space. That’s why it is also called a stellar compass. The stellar compass compares the photographic image with the stellar map to define the exact position of the spacecraft.

The idea for the stellar camera came to me one day when I was busy developing a camera to investigate beer filters, which resembled small white dots on a screen. Fritz Primdahl, DTU Space, happened to stop by my office. He thought that I was working with stars and we began talking about celestial navigation. Primdahl explained that spacecraft actually had trouble recognizing stars. I told him that was easy. The rest is history. Stellar cameras were first used on the Ørsted satellite.




Tea meetings

As a young researcher at DTU, I was involved in developing new high-tech solutions. At the time, I was researching digital cameras. We lifted the lid off computer memory chips and used them in the first simple cameras. My group and I were convinced that digital cameras would be the thing of the future. And they were, but I never imagined that the technology would become so big.

I talked about the cameras at our tea meetings where 20-30 DTU researchers met every Thursday at 3.00 p.m. The meetings functioned as a kind of topical presentation. Among the researchers was Danish physicist and Mars researcher— Jens Martin Knudsen. He worked with meteorites, celestial bodies that fall to Earth. At the time we, we had designed a camera capable of examining the crystal structures and elemental composition of meteorites.

Jens Martin was the catalyst who got us started: “If you want to research into space travel, you should just go ahead and do it,” he said. We wanted to, but where was the research funding going to come from? Back then, collaboration between industry and universities was something of a rarity. But Jens Martin had got us thinking. We young researchers began to discuss how we could get started.

We ended up talking about the German physicist Albert Einstein, who believed that one of the deepest questions was how the Earth’s magnetic field came into being. Why not try to solve that? The question later came to form the mission of the first Danish satellite—Ørsted—whose primary objective was to accurately map the Earth’s magnetic field.




Mauna Kea

NASA contacted me after I published a series of scientific articles about the Ørsted satellite. They were interested in our stellar cameras—and had in fact also launched the Ørsted satellite free of charge. They then invited me to their observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii to test the stellar camera technology. Mauna Kea is an inactive volcano and Hawaii’s highest mountain. A place where visitors come very close to the stars.

While I was on the island, a man came to visit me and introduced himself as Dr Jack Connerney. It turned out that he worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He wanted to know if we were interested in flying the stellar camera to Jupiter. Yes, please. Definitely... but as Jupiter is known to give off intense radiation, we agreed that I continued working on the camera so it wouldn’t be blown to pieces by the radiation.

Our collaboration resulted in DTU supplying the stellar camera for the Juno probe. Last year, it orbited Jupiter—the largest planet in our solar system. The probe is providing us with a lot of knowledge about the origins and early development of our solar system. Since Juno, all doors have been open to us. To date, DTU Space has supplied stellar cameras on 75 international space missions. Now we can pick and choose between the best missions.

In 2020, we will be sending the first instrument on a mission to Mars to help clarify whether there is life there. It would be quite n achievement if DTU were to discover whether there has been life on Mars. Unless of course there still is life on the planet—and we catch a little green alien.



The Ørsted satellite

It was difficult to establish collaboration on the Danish Ørsted satellite. It required that we broke down the barriers between industry and the universities. However, once that was done, things moved very quickly, and we built and developed the satellite in cooperation with Aalborg University, Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish space industries.

The satellite made history as a technological—and Danish—achievement. With Ørsted, it was suddenly possible to send measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field to scientists, who used these data to devise advanced models of the Earth’s magnetic field. That was historic. The models are still being used all over the world—among other things to search for oil and minerals. Today, there isn’t a spacecraft in the world that doesn’t use the stellar camera to navigate by.

The satellite was a ‘turning point’ for the whole country. Internationally, it put Danish space travel on the world map. Since then, Denmark has ‘owned’ the magnetic field. We own a science. It was our ‘claim to fame’ and opened the doors to the space market.

Since then, we have developed the technology. Imagine if we’d developed a Ford T. Now we had to develop a modern car. Today, we publish new methods we have invented on an ongoing basis to boost impact. We are also working on increasing the accuracy of spacecraft measuring systems. This will mean that the space travel industry can save resources—just as research will pave the way for space tourism.

A trip to space is still far more expensive than a trip to Thailand. But I expect we will soon be seeing inflatable hotels floating about in space. I wouldn’t mind experiencing that. I’d like to be a space tourist.


Photo: Mikal Schlosser  

John Leif Jørgensen is 60 years old, married to Beth Härstedt Olsen, and has two children. Lives in Amager, Copenhagen, Denmark. In his spare time he sails, swims, and enjoys water skiing. He does not answer his mobile phone or read emails at home. 

2007- : Professor at DTU Space 
2005–2006: Professor at Ørsted•DTU 
1983—1989: Assistant professor, Department of Electrophysics, DTU
1990–2005: Associate professor, DIA-K, Ørsted•DTU
1982: Graduated as an electrical engineer from DTU
1988: Graduate—Diploma in organization from Copenhagen Business School 


2013: The Order of the Dannebrog for his contribution to space 
2014: Gold medal from NASA.Countless Achievement Awards from NASA and ESA