How a UQ student swapped her farming life to help guide the UQ Space team towards a world record.
Myrthe Snoeks was a Dutch backpacker living and working at a cattle station in regional Queensland when she decided she was going to study engineering and arts at UQ.
Four years on, the third-year student is Managing Director of UQ Space, a 100-strong organisation of students working to become the next generation of leaders in the Australian space industry.
In just two years, the team has become the top-ranked student space organisation in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2021, their ambitions are firmly set on a new world record: to become the first student rocketry team to reach the boundary of space with a student-built rocket, definitive data and a scientific payload.
But for Snoeks, the real sense of achievement isn’t in the rockets – it’s in the people that make them.
The UQ Space Team at the Australian Universities Rocket Competition 2019.
The UQ Space Team at the Australian Universities Rocket Competition 2019.
A year after she’d flown across the world to meet her extended family in Tasmania, Snoeks found herself working at a cattle station a few hours out of Biloela, Queensland.
While she’d collected a handful of certifications in The Netherlands, she was yet to explore the option of university study.
While at the station, Snoeks decided to pursue an undergraduate degree by enrolling in a Bachelor of Engineering / Bachelor of Arts at UQ.
“It’s nearly impossible to do a dual degree in most of the places I’ve found; if you do engineering, you usually go to a specialised technical university that doesn’t offer humanities,” Snoeks said.
“It’s really valuable to use both skillsets because they’re quite interlinked, at least in my head.
“I think a lot of problems in politics or society can be approached from an engineering mindset, just as engineering problems can be approached from a social mindset.
“At the end of the day, they're all just complex systems; humans are variables as much as anything else, but it’s a lot harder to predict how they will behave.”
This interdisciplinary niche between policy, people and space is where Snoeks has found her passion.
“The interesting part is that – for now – the laws or governing rules for how humans will live in space are still largely undefined,” she said
“For example, how do you plan this if you ever go to a place like Mars? Are you just going to copy-and-paste the laws of the United States?”
“I know it sounds like science fiction, but on that international level, you work with countries like Russia, Japan, Europe and the United States, and they all have different languages, cultures, social systems and political systems.
“Questions range from the very trivial to the very serious, like whether you use imperial or metric, up to that some things are crimes in one country but not another.
“You also need to understand the physics that goes behind launching and creating the systems. All the people and all the governments need to work together.”
The concept for UQ Space was floated (pun intended) in a 2018 session with Ventures, the suite of entrepreneurship programs that provide UQ students, staff and alumni with the tools and opportunities to help bring their ideas to life
They planned to compete in the Spaceport America Cup, the most prestigious student rocketry competition in the world, and to be the first team from Australia or New Zealand to do so.
A few months later, they made their first pitch to the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology.
“I remember looking in the mirror right before we pitched and thinking, ‘what am I doing?!’”
UQ Space expanded from 18 members at the pitch to 40 by the end of the year.
With the University’s endorsement, the team began churning through the logistical side of the project – business proposals, budgets, regulation adherence.
With the support of a dedicated workspace, budget and business phone, UQ Space blossomed from an idea into a fully fledged organisation.
Before they made it to the US, the team was encouraged to turn first to home soil and compete in the Australian Universities Rocket Competition (AURC) in 2019.
Their very first rockets – Project Athena and Project Minerva – were designed, built and tested over 10 months.
“A crucial part is that after we’ve finished a paper design, we take it to a panel of experts: professors in electrical engineering and hypersonics, representatives from Boeing and Defence, and even representatives from industry, to assess whether or not our planning and resourcing is adequate,” Snoeks said.
“The point of those design reviews is not to identify how well we've worked, but to scrutinise every single thing that's wrong in our design.
“One of the main risks with complex systems like this is that you can miss those critical things that other people can see.”
The team placed first overall at AURC, with Project Athena first in its category (10,000 ft) and Project Minerva fourth (30,000 ft).
“The level of accuracy that we achieved on that launch was greater than any achieved at the Spaceport America Cup, prior from the data available,” Snoeks said.
“It was kind of a semi-unbelievable moment because we'd only been doing this for a year.”
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing at the launch. Project Minerva failed to separate and came down ballistic, burying itself completely.
At 246 metres per second, it baked the clay around it on impact and had to be excavated out.
“It went up to 30,000 feet – the height of a commercial airliner – and reached Mach 2 –twice the speed of sound,” Snoeks said.
“We were all really excited to hear back from telemetry that it was 30,800 feet, and then the next package we got was suddenly 24,000 feet, and we thought, ‘wait a minute, that sounds wrong’.
“And at that point, you're standing there not only with a team of students that have worked on the project for months or years, but also all of these other university teams.
“We [publicised the crash] because it reminds us that even if we plan and manufacture and analyse everything completely, there are still factors that we don’t know anything about until we make a mistake.
“We've learned more from that failure than we have from any of our successes.”
As Managing Director, UQ Space is more than just its rockets for Snoeks – it’s the cohort of experienced graduates who will nurture and grow the fledgling Australian space industry in the years to come.
“We’re creating a set of people able to build space-capable rockets before they graduate – that’s not something you’ll get anywhere else. It’s not something you can learn in a classroom,” she said.
“When we first started out, we were often told that what we’re doing is too dangerous or too risky – but not because of the inherent danger, but the strategic risk for sponsors in putting their name behind us when we had nothing to prove that we could actually do it.”
“We're undergraduates. And, of course, if you go, ‘Hi, I'm an unqualified engineer looking to work with explosives with a group of other unqualified engineers to then launch a rocket into space... hopefully’, then everyone’s going to be a bit uncertain.
“But that’s not the point – that’s not the story, either. People are investing in the students that will lead this industry, in the future of this country, and in the future of these individuals who are really passionate about something and want to showcase their ability to do it.
“It's about having faith in the enthusiasm and capability of these people that have already achieved a lot.
“They’re at a leading global university – it was already hard enough to get here, and they still have the enthusiasm and ability to do more. So why wouldn't you give them the chance to do that?”
While the team’s 2020 Spaceport America dreams were dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, they continue to work on Project Asteria, which – after some successful initial testing – is well on its way to hitting a new world record.
Image: The UQ Space campsite during the Australian Universities Rocket Competition in 2019.