6 mins read 30 May 2022

Women of the Australian Space Community: Dr Ashley Ruiter

Women play a huge role in the Australian space sector, and each week will be sharing the story of an inspiring woman who makes our community so special.

Dr Ashley Ruiter - ARC Future Fellow and senior lecturer in the School of Science at UNSW Canberra. Supplied.

In March each year, we not only celebrate International Women’s Day but we also enjoy learning about all the contributions women have made to society during Women’s History Month. Originally started in the US in 1987, it has in recent times, in part due to social media, become more well known across the world. 

As a celebration of all the wonderful work, inspiration and support that women across our region do in the space sector, will be speaking to a new women in the Australian space community weekly, to uncover their stories and find out who inspires them.

Dr Ashley Ruiter - ARC future fellow and senior lecturer in the School of Science at UNSW Canberra (at the Australian Defence Force Academy).

What is your role at UNSW Canberra?

I am an astrophysicist that is interested in the types of star systems that lead toward type Ia supernova explosions. 

Type Ia supernovae are thermonuclear explosions that occur in some white dwarf stars - when they reach specific physical conditions. 

It isn’t precisely known how white dwarfs reach these conditions but it almost certainly involves interactions with another star. I simulate a large number of double-star systems (binary stars) spanning a wide range of initial conditions to uncover which evolutionary scenarios may lead to a Type Ia supernova, or some other type of astrophysical transient event (like a white dwarf merger that results in a new class of star instead of an explosion). 

I am also the Discipline Coordinator for Physics and Oceanography in my School, so I have a lot of administrative duties when it comes to managing undergraduate teaching in my discipline.

Prior to my current job I held postdoctoral fellowships at ANU (Australian National University) and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (near Munich).  

How did you end up working in the space sector and what drew you to it?

I wouldn’t say that I work in the space sector per se - personally, I’m doing basic research in astronomy and astrophysics, though the space sector is an extremely important part of my job since it really enables the advancement of technology and astronomical discovery. 

Though as a kid I was always fascinated by the solar system planets (though I never had a telescope!), my real ‘Aha this is cool’ moment came when I was looking through a National Geographic hardcover book called Our Universe, doing some research for a middle school project. 

I then learned that light had a finite speed and that light from every star - even our Sun - takes some (large) amount of time to reach Earth. The idea that the image I capture with my eye of the star Betelgeuse right now is actually just what it looked like many 100s of years ago totally blew my mind… and that if it exploded (which it will at some point), we would be totally unaware of that spectacle until 100s of years later.

This dark, tangled web is an object named SNR 0454-67.2. It formed in a very violent fashion — it is a supernova remnant, created after a massive star ended its life in a cataclysmic explosion and threw its constituent material out into surrounding space. This created the messy formation we see in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, with threads of red snaking amidst dark, turbulent clouds. Credit: ESA/NASA Hubble.

What has been your most interesting discovery or been the most interesting space-related project you have worked on or been part of?

When I was a postdoc in Germany I led a paper where we discovered that - in our preferred scenario for making type Ia supernovae (SNe Ia) - with our model pipeline we could explain the distribution of peak SN Ia luminosities that were observed in nature. 

The most interesting thing about this study was that a new binary evolutionary pathway for making double white dwarfs was uncovered in our model data. 

I am also in the Astrophysics Working Group for the LISA Consortium (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna). When I was a PhD student, the proposed launch date for LISA was 2013! Well, now we will need to wait at least another 10 years, but I’m really looking forward to what LISA will reveal about the formation and evolution of double white dwarf binaries.  

What do you think are some of the issues faced by women in the space sector and how do you think they should be resolved?

In my experience, certainly taking time off work to have family and be present for your children - being a carer in general - takes a lot of time out of the day (and night), and this impacts one’s ability to ‘keep up’ with their peers who may not have the same level of responsibility outside of work. 

I personally don’t have any regrets about taking 3 lots of maternity leave or going part-time, because even though I knew it would make things harder for me career-wise, I would regret even more not spending that extra time with my kids. 

But lockdowns and homeschooling - phew - that’s another story and I hope we don’t have that situation again any time soon! 😅 (thank you teachers and vaccines!) 

I can say that I spend more time on committee work compared to my male counterparts. In some way this does has a negative impact because it disproportionately burdens women with more administration, so we have less time to do science. 

On the other hand, I think that in some cases (not all), being on committees can be really insightful and educational. I don’t have a solution right now though, since representation is very important. 

What are you most excited about in the coming years for the Australian Space Industry?

I am involved with the Vera Rubin Observatory which will conduct a crazy-deep survey of the Southern sky (telescope will be in Chile) over a 10 year period. The science goals of this new amazing observatory are many, but I am most excited about the prospects for uncovering the origin of stellar transients that would otherwise go completely missed. 

In astro-speak, a ‘transient’ is something that gets bright and then fades pretty quickly. So, if you aren’t looking at that patch of sky for very long, or not frequently enough, you’ll totally miss its discovery. 

The LSST (10-year Legacy Survey of Space and Time) with Rubin will be unprecedented - it will detect an enormous number of transient “things” every night (about a million alerts per night expected). The challenge (and people across the globe are working on this now) will be to decipher between the not-so-exciting stuff and the truly interesting stuff - ideally quickly enough so that other telescopes (like those in Australia) can follow up the exciting transients before they fade, as the Earth rotates and nighttime passes from Chile to us. 

I am looking forward to providing theoretical insight into how some of these transients come to fruition, how frequently we can expect to see them, and what elements they create and eject back into space.