Observatoire de Paris Institut national de recherche scientifique français Univerité Pierre et Marie Curie Université Paris Diderot - Paris 7

Mina Konaka, on her way to the Moon

Tuesday 27 September 2022

Since her earliest childhood, Mina Konaka is passionate about the Moon and follows a single goal: becoming an astronaut. She always believed in her dreams and her whole educational career is dedicated, step by step, to this project. She trained in spatial engineering and in astronomy, following the example of Thomas Pesquet she considers as her role model. In 2022 she entered the process of JAXA astronaut recruiting campaign to realize her dream. This with full success as she’s now reaching the ultimate phases of this challenge. We invite you to discover the one who might soon become, one of the Japanese female astronauts.

Mina Konaka, at Tsukuba Space Center in Japan
Mina Konaka, at Tsukuba Space Center in Japan

It all began in a planetarium...

Mina Konaka was born in Tokyo in 1995. Ever since she was a child, she always remembers feeling a strong interest for space and anything connected to the sky or the stars. No one in her family were working in scientific fields. In fact, it all really started when she hardly was a little girl in primary school, loving stargazing, urging her mother to learn more about space. So, one day, she took her to the planetarium and Mina felt it was so beautiful that she never would give up this passion.

By that time, she was focusing on three main topics: stars, dinosaurs and insects. Nothing strange in fact, as most children fancy studying such fields! The interesting fact about Mina, is that she held on to her dreams and, in a certain way, made them come true. That’s what we will discover in this narrative.

By that time, in 2007, JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) was collecting ideas from the public to name the first Japanese Lunar probe, that was planned to explore the Moon and was about to be launched in September 2007. Mina submitted one idea, Kaguya, the name of a Moon princess in Japanese ancient tales. Its counterpart in Greek mythology is Selene.

Time went by and she had almost forgotten about this challenge when, some day, she received a congratulations letter with a certificate from JAXA informing her that she had succeeded in naming the mission. Should we already see in this a strong call from outer space? Anyway, that’s what Mina felt and she realized that, despite her young age, maybe space was something she could pursue when she grows up. She followed this Kaguya mission with such interest that it was passion for her dreams. So, she decided she wanted to go to the Moon, like Kaguya someday, and be an astronaut. “Kid stories!” one could say with a hint of irony… Future may prove that to hold on to your dreams can take you far away.

Hold on to your dreams and make them come true!

“From now on”, she said to herself, “I’m on my way to the Moon”! To begin with this long way, first step was to start learning English as soon as possible which is not so easy in Japanese environment. So, she planned to study science and English to realize her dreams. As to acquire language skills, she knew she would have to study abroad sooner or later.

It started when she was 15 and spent two months in Australia, the nearest English-speaking country to Japan. When she was 17, in Japanese High-school, she had to choose options to study in the university. Not the slightest doubt about her will to “deal with space” but “How?” was the question. She was vacillating between observing space or manufacturing spacecrafts.

First, she chose to study mechanical and aerospace engineering as major subjects in Tohoku University in the North of Japan, a famous university for spacecraft engineering where she spent 6 years between 2014 and 2019. There, she passed her Bachelor and Master. She specialized in aerospace engineering and mechanics. Her Bachelor thesis was about designing the wheels of the Lunar Rover. For her Master thesis, she changed her topic to satellites and worked on the evaluation of the thermal analysis of a 60 kg micro-satellite ALE1 that was launched by the start-up company ALE.Ltd in 2019.

How to become an astronaut?

Still focusing on the aim of becoming an astronaut, she underlines the fact that she had to discover new cultures and be able to speak English fluently. To achieve that goal, she spent a part of her university curriculum abroad. First in California (Davis), in 2016 for half a year. “A very interesting and motivating part of my education,” she says. There she studied space robotic and space industry in the “American way” and she found this very enriching. The icing on the cake, was that some of her professors were astronauts and it was very interesting to be trained by them and to know more about their activities in space.

Then, she spent 6 months in Germany (Technical University of Berlin) where she worked on the thermal design for a 35 kg nanosatellite. At the end of this period, she graduated and got her Master in mechanical engineering 6 months earlier than expected.

She then decided to spend the 6 remaining months working for the International Space University based in Strasbourg. As there was a summer program going on, she spent 3 months in Strasbourg and the 3 months left in Australia. More opportunities to discover new ways of life, as traveling is a passion for her. Despite still being in her twenties, she has already travelled to 40 countries!

Mina Konaka in Chile (2019)
Mina Konaka in Chile (2019)

ALMA observatory public tour in the Atacama Desert.

This first contact with France was very striking. She felt impressed by the people, fell in love with the country, the culture. “This is a culture I want to know more about”, she said to herself. So, she made up her mind to come back to France later, maybe for her PhD. Future would soon prove that it’s what she did!

Back to astronomy and the discovery of France at LESIA

So, till that point of her academic career, she had mainly focused on Moon and satellites. She still wished to continue her education until obtaining a PhD but didn’t want to carry on studying the same fields.

Once she got her master, she took an 18 months job offered by JAXA as a system engineer on a 3000 kg satellite. After the designing was finished, she supervised the validation phase: vacuum tests, shock tests, vibration tests, also interacting with the engineers in charge of the launching to customize the satellite for the rocket.

Mina learned variety of management skills and responsibility within the space agency. She felt she needs to specialize in science in order to better understand the whole procedure of space missions. At the same time, she was willing to use her skills in engineering.

She saw the PhD offer on the LESIA website and got in touch with Coralie Neiner. She was recruiting a doctoral student who would be in charge of advancing the technical readiness level of the UV spectropolarimetry instruments and the thermal design of a nanosatellite named CASSTOR. She found Mina’s background interesting for this purpose.

The nanosatellite CASSTOR
The nanosatellite CASSTOR

Credit : Vincent Lapeyrère

Therefore, Mina arrived at LESIA in September 2021. She’s currently working on UV spectropolarimetry for CASSTOR satellite. Phase A is on its way and launching is proposed for 2026… if not delayed as often in space missions. Mina conducted the thermal design of this satellite which is very fragile and sensitive to the heat and under strong risk of contamination as most nanosatellites. So, it has to be monitored closely and tested under vacuum in Vega room, one of the LESIA’s clean rooms. Together with Cyrille Blanchard, they’re raising the technical readiness level to make sure the design is correct and that they further get the results expected.

To use high resolution UV spectropolarimetry in space is important because it ensures a better observation of the formation of hot stars as it’s difficult to study them from Earth due to the atmosphere. However, no UV spectropolarimetry has been sent to space ever before. Paris observatory is at the cutting edge in that field, using this new technology to prove it feasible.

Overview of the UV spectropolarimetry
Overview of the UV spectropolarimetry

Credit: Kenric CITADELLE

So key results are expected in the next decades. Mina is captivated by this job and her contribution to CASSTOR. She feels very grateful for her colleagues help and experiences a sense of fulfilment in this environment and with the team around her.

A decisive step towards her goal

Maybe, in the last paragraphs, we lost path of Mina’s project? She wants to become an astronaut and every step she makes is aimed at this. So, let’s get back to it now! Like she often underlines it, her “ultimate goal is to become an astronaut”. Passing her PhD ensures her a diploma, a level and a culture in astronomy and astrophysics. As she says: “It’s a way and a strategy to concentrate on problems in order to solve them”.

In fact, getting her PhD is the base on which to build her future. Her role model is Thomas Pesquet and she intends to follow his footsteps. He’s an engineer, a pilot and an astronaut and speaks 6 languages fluently. Full of admiration, she describes him as talented and very communicative. So, despite being on her way to become a kind of “Japanese Thomas Pesquet” as she says with humour, there still seems to be a long way ahead to make her dreams come true!

As she was still working for JAXA, she wasn’t expecting there might be any recruiting campaign going on…but yet, one fine day, it happened! The friends around her informed her of that unique opportunity to make her dreams come true. Time had come to take a chance so, although doubtful, she immediately applied in 2022. This with good reason: 4127 candidates also were in the running, she was a woman and among the youngest being 26 only and still a doctorate! But sometimes you can turn what can be considered like weak points into strong points. And it’s just what seems to be on the way.

A very competitive challenge

She sent her application successfully while half of the applicants didn’t pass the first round. Then, there was an English test, and general knowledge tests in all the subjects. It looks as if you had to be omniscient to become an astronaut! But no problem for Mina as she’s so strongly involved in the process. So, again, she successfully passed that round and remained among the 205 applicants left, mainly men among which only 17 women!

Tsukuba Space Center
Tsukuba Space Center

H-II rocket at the TKSC

The next step took place in July 2022 where things are getting more serious than ever. She went back to Japan for two weeks and a determining step in the selection. 5 tests including medical, operation, presentation, psychological and personality examinations. Results of this decisive step are soon to come.

Despite the high competition level in this phase, Mina enjoys the process. Also, JAXA might be interested in recruiting a young woman among the many men still in the race. Also too, keeping in mind that, Japanese astronauts are no more than 11 in total, among them, only 6 are active with an average age of more than 50 years old.

Anyway, whatever the result may be, her LESIA team is very encouraging. Mina will need their support. She is still not out of the woods as there are two more steps ahead. If she remains among the finalists, she has to undergo more tests just like JAXA did on last selection 13 years ago. Maybe, astronaut spinning tests to confirm her ability to resist a spacecraft launching. But still, she could get no clear information so far. This final part of the selection has to be kept secret. We’ll come back to you all if she succeeds in this process. Let’s not forget anyway, that only a few astronauts will be employed by JAXA.

Focusing on astronaut activities anyway

What if she fails then? Mina doesn’t show any despair. Whatever might be on her way, she remains optimistic. Following the common thread of her dreams and career, she plans to become a researcher and communicate about astronomy, astrophysics, obviously linked to the activities of astronauts. Following Thomas Pesquet’s example, she mentions the several jobs an astronaut dealing with the public must comply with: being an engineer, a scientist, a pilot, a doctor, an educator, an artist, a communicator and a diplomat. So, she figures herself involved in communication and education activities to share her passion for the stars and the Universe.

To take me along with her towards this possible future, she relates me a journey, two years ago, as she still was an engineer, backpacking with friends in the Atacama Desert for the first time. She visited ALMA and was so impressed by the beauty of the sky, that it reminded her of her first visit to the Tokyo planetarium with her mother. Suddenly, she realized that engineering can contribute to astronomy. Perhaps, she did not need to choose one but can work for both engineering and astronomy? So, the decision to come to LESIA and the JAXA challenge followed.

Space and ocean, an obvious link

Apart from this, Mina loves ocean. When she was eleven, she got her scuba diving license and her parents would take her to the ocean every year. She loves swimming because when you swim it’s like being in space, losing the feeling of your weigh. No surprise that astronauts train in swimming pools. No surprise neither that she feels fine in water.

Since she’s in Meudon, she practices apnea in the swimming pool. She also loves studying languages like French and English. Although, French is very difficult for her, she feels very involved and motivated to better communicate with the people of the country she has chosen and she loves. Maybe we’ll hear from her in the coming years and decades if she becomes one of the Japanese astronauts? We wish her all the best in this challenge and, if so, LESIA will have been a significant contribution on her way to the Moon!

Portrait written by Luc Heintze
The CASSTOR team
The CASSTOR team

On a concurrent engineering campaign (CIC) for CASSTOR at the CENSUS facility PROMESS room (building 15). From left to right: Eitan Pechevis, Coralie Neiner, Mina Konaka, Rashika Jain, Boris Segret, Vincent Lapeyrère, and Claude Catala.
Credit: CENSUS