From Sheffield to space: City-born NASA scientist sends important device into orbit that can predict droughts

When a Falcon 9 rocket blasts off tomorrow from Cape Canaveral in Florida bound for the International Space Station, the cargo craft it carries will be loaded with a piece of Sheffield expertise.

ECOSTRESS is checked over before the launch. Picture: NASA
ECOSTRESS is checked over before the launch. Picture: NASA

For research scientist Simon Hook - who grew up in Ecclesall, went to High Storrs School and is now a manager at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California - has devised an instrument that can measure the temperature of plant life from above the Earth, helping to predict when life-threatening droughts will occur.

The ECOSTRESS device will be kept on the space station, taking highly detailed pictures and producing results that can pinpoint the data from a single field on the ground.

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Simon, 57, returns to Sheffield every year to see his parents, and credits High Storrs with sparking his love of geology - but, when the launch takes place at 10.41am UK time, his attentions will be focused on his project's journey into orbit.

Simon Hook with a copy of The Sheffield Cookbook

"I will try and be calm on the outside but will be very nervous underneath," said Simon, who has worked on the instrument for years. "If all goes well I will be cheering like crazy."

Simon manages the science division at the laboratory, which among other things develops and operates NASA's Mars Rovers. His research concentrates on the ecology of planets, and the rocks and fluids found on them, including studies of large lakes and wildfires on Earth. He then applies his knowledge to other worlds, in particular Mars.

"I was attracted to geology because I really enjoyed learning about the environment and High Storrs had a great geology teacher, Peter Kennett," he said. "I vividly remember my first field trip to Ecclesall Graveyard. It seems like a strange place but it is great for geology because the headstones are made of all different rock types."

Simon was born on Greystones Drive as the second-oldest of three children. His mother, Shirley, was a teacher and his father, Terry, an electrician. "My dad could fix anything or build anything, he built multiple extensions on our house and I was always watching him, whether he was fixing the car, building a wall, putting in plumbing or electrics. My mother always made sure I did my homework and encouraged me to study. My mum was a biology teacher and I was surrounded by textbooks growing up. I loved to explore and my favourite trips were to Forge Dam - they still are."

ECOSTRESS arrives at the launch site. Picture: NASA

He later went to Durham University to read geology, then took a master's at Alberta University in Canada. During his MSc he became interested in 'remote sensing' - studying something without being in direct contact with it. At the time a satellite had been launched with a sensor designed to study Earth, and Simon worked on the data as part of an exchange scheme. By chance, he encountered staff from the NASA lab while making measurements in remote Newfoundland, and stayed in touch while completing a PhD in Durham.

"The NASA folks contacted my supervisor and asked if I would like to apply to work with them as a postdoctoral scholar at the laboratory. I accepted and have been there ever since. It is a fascinating place to work."

Simon is the principal investigator for ECOSTRESS, which stands for the ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station. "I came up with the name late one

night. It is a team effort, and I lead the team. I had been working on the idea of an instrument for several years, and we proposed to NASA to build it."

The International Space Station, 220 miles above the Earth

In 2014 he was told by NASA headquarters in Washington that the mission had been selected in a competition called Earth Ventures. ECOSTRESS, Simon explained, will be used to remotely measure the temperature of vegetation, using the information to determine how much water plants are using to keep themselves cool. If plants have enough moisture, they can stay cool by releasing it through the pores on their leaves, called stomata.

"If they do not have enough water the plant closes the pores and overheats and we can see the increase in temperature or stress. The stress is present before the plant turns brown and dies so we can use the information to help inform farmers where to water their fields."

The instrument can also be used to guage the temperature of other parts of the planet that might be changing. "Information about the surface of the Earth is very useful, just like when you go to see the doctor and the doctor takes your temperature. So we can use the temperature information to study other phenomena such as volcanoes and heatwaves."

Simon is divorced and has two daughters, both of whom will be at the launch with their friends. One of his children lives in California and the other resides in Germany. "It will be fantastic to have them with me on such an important occasion."

He visits Sheffield 'once or twice a year', and has advice for city school pupils considering their futures. "I love coming back to Sheffield. I have so many fond memories of growing up. I am a great believer that if you work hard at something you will succeed. I think all the STEM subjects can lead to a great career and I encourage all young people to follow their dreams. NASA/JPL is an incredibly diverse place with people from many different places and cultures, all passionate about learning more about the Earth and space."