at the age of eight, while looking through a set of encyclopedias, Fatoumata stopped at the volumes devoted to astronomy and astrophysics.
December 6, 2016,
she defended her thesis entitled "Étude de l'influence des incréments de vitesse impulsionnels sur les trajectoires de débris spatiaux" (Study of the influence of impulse velocity increments on space debris trajectories)
She's been involved in all kinds of battles. Or rather, all kinds of victories. Terrestrial ones, in the first instance, but not only. Though firmly rooted in the daily reality of a planet where inequality reigns between peoples and the sexes, Fatoumata Kébé has been gazing up at the stars ever since she was a little girl.
It all began in 1993 when, at the age of eight, while looking through a set of encyclopedias, Fatoumata stopped at the volumes devoted to astronomy and astrophysics. "One day I'm going to have a job that involves the planets and stars", she promised herself. So, she began to look up more often at the skies over the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis where she grew up. A combination of light pollution and particles in the air made the beauty of the night sky a rare sight. Normally, only a few stars were visible, although one heavenly body always shone brighter than all the others: the Moon. She called it her "starry sky”.
At that age, she was a long way from becoming an astrophysicist. But after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, she did a Masters in fluid mechanics, spending the final year in Japan at the University of Tokyo, where she studied space engineering and astronomy in a laboratory that manufactures small satellites. “It was a culture shock," recalls Fatoumata Kébé. "All my usual points of reference – in terms of architecture, language and food – were turned upside down!” She spent a year "practicing" and gaining an initial experience of astronomy, which then led to a doctorate at the Institut de mécanique céleste et de calcul des éphémérides (IMCCE) at the Paris Observatory. She defended her thesis entitled "Étude de l'influence des incréments de vitesse impulsionnels sur les trajectoires de débris spatiaux" (Study of the influence of impulse velocity increments on space debris trajectories) on December 6, 2016. Describing it as a "fascinating subject", it brought together two topics that are close to the astrophysicist's heart: the environment and space.
Fatoumata Kébé subsequently decided to specialize in research into the space debris that pollutes the so-called ‘low-lying’ region around the Earth.
What's interesting is that we're using the tools of astronomy - which are usually reserved for fundamental research - to give us practical results.
The issue of debris raises questions about current practices in space, given the increasing number of both industry players and satellite launches. Above all, it highlights the growing risk of this junk colliding with working satellites, as well as the ever-increasing risk of such debris falling to Earth.
Fatoumata won the International Telecommunication Union's Young Innovators Award
her commitment earned her a place on Vanity Fair's list of the world's most influential Frenchwomen
she was her appointment in France as a Chevalier de l'ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the Order of Merit)
Although Fatoumata Kébé has long looked to the heavens, she has not forgotten earthly realities, including the various forms of inequality. Top of the list is the unequal access to science worldwide. Fatoumata is an active member of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an NGO for professional astronomers with a doctorate in the subject. As a contributor within the division dedicated to education, mediation and heritage, she helps to organize online conferences for professional audiences who lack resources in the discipline; this includes countries where astronomy has not yet taken root, or only to a very limited extent (Africa, South America, Asia and few European countries).
Born to parents of Malian origin, Fatoumata is personally involved in scientific issues relating to Africa.
I recently launched my own consulting business. I help young African space agencies to develop and to structure their activities, and to address the training needs of young people in these fields.
Her commitment contains echoes of the Connected Eco project that Fatoumata led in Mali and that went on to win the International Telecommunication Union's Young Innovators Award in 2014. The project was developed to help the agricultural sector optimize the monitoring of water resources and irrigation.
However, unequal access to science is not limited to particular continents. Learning about astronomy is far from being a reality for every child in developed countries, and especially in France. "When I was a child, I didn't have access to astronomy because of where I lived. So, by setting up the Éphémérides Association , I wanted to give all those young people the chance to take part in space-related activities. It's also a way of debunking all the fake news on the internet. And finally, it's a way of countering the sense of exclusion felt by ordinary people, who see astronomy as something inaccessible. But we all have a stake in this. Aren't we all descended from stardust?” She continues: "We also work in schools, aiming to shatter the barriers that prevent young girls from participating in scientific activities from a very young age, activities that have traditionally been associated with boys. And when girls pursue careers in the field of science, they often establish a connection with the idea of nurturing and caring for others (eg. Chemistry, biology)”.
Her commitment to such issues earned her a place on Vanity Fair's list of the world's most influential Frenchwomen in 2018 and her appointment in France as a Chevalier de l'ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the Order of Merit) in 2021.
A scientist and storyteller
A scientist and storyteller
A researcher and raconteur, a scientist and poet, Fatoumata is as comfortable with words as she is with numbers. Her aim is to make the celestial bodies that have fired the human imagination since the dawn of time even more real to people.
During a residency at Villa Albertine, an arts and ideas community in France and the United States of which Ardian is a partner, Fatoumata explored aspects of the Apollo space missions between 1969 and 1972. First, she considered the 380 kilos of lunar rocks brought back to Earth, some of which have been preserved for future generations of scientists to study with ever more powerful technological instruments. Then she turned to the subject of women, looking both at the wives of astronauts and the women who took part behind the scenes in the design and delivery of these missions. The final topics were the Texan cities of Houston, the home of the American space program, and Marfa, where the absence of light pollution makes more than a thousand stars visible to the naked eye. Combining art and science, the project has led to a podcast, and follows the publication of her two books to date, La Lune est un roman and Lettres à la Lune.
However, Fatoumata is already looking ahead to her next project, which she hopes will be another small step towards the place she cherishes so much.
My watchword is perseverance. Every little victory brings me closer to what I want most: to walk on the Moon.
Fatoumata Kébé will be speaking at a conference for Ardian employees in Paris on November 17, organized by the Ardian Women's Club.