Stu­dent satel­lite project out of this world

The Hamilton Spectator - - LO­CAL - JON WELLS jwells@thes­ 905-526-3515 | @jon­jwells

Like many who en­joy the odd brain-numb­ing guilty plea­sure, Erica Dao is pretty typ­i­cal.

That is, she watches “The Bach­e­lor” on TV.

Less typ­i­cally, the 23-year-old stu­dent stud­ies med­i­cal physics and builds satel­lites.

OK, se­ri­ously, not satel­lites plu­ral — just one satel­lite — that will ul­ti­mately ven­ture into an or­bit 465 kilo­me­tres from Earth and mea­sure the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion on the body.

Dao was one of the first stu­dents at McMaster Uni­ver­sity to em­bark on the project two years ago to de­sign, build and ul­ti­mately launch a small satel­lite by the end of 2018, if all goes well.

The project, called NEU­DOSE, now in­volves about 35 stu­dents from a mix of Mac’s sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing fac­ul­ties.

Dao is 23, from Cam­bridge, and is a sec­ond-year mas­ter’s stu­dent, hav­ing al­ready grad­u­ated with a sci­ence de­gree from Mac.

She spoke with The Spec­ta­tor about the satel­lite, its prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits, and if she would one day like to slip the surly bonds of Earth for the fi­nal fron­tier.

Ques­tions and an­swers have been edited for length and clar­ity.

Jon Wells: You are tak­ing med­i­cal physics. That sounds a bit com­pli­cated.

Erica Dao: A lot of peo­ple say that, the two words are not of­ten paired … Med­i­cal physics is the bridge be­tween bi­ol­ogy, physics and health sci­ence, of­ten it’s ap­ply­ing con­cepts from physics to the med­i­cal set­ting. A big part of that is we take classes in ra­di­a­tion sci­ence, and that’s what got me in­ter­ested in the NEU­DOSE project, which is study­ing how ra­di­a­tion af­fects as­tro­nauts in outer space.

JW: What does NEU­DOSE stand for?

ED: “Neu” stands for neu­trons, and “Dos” for “dosime­try” which is the mea­sure­ment of ra­di­a­tion doses, and then “E” for ex­plo­ration.

JW: So as­tro­nauts are ex­posed to ra­di­a­tion even wear­ing their space gear and in­side their ves­sels?

ED: Yes. When peo­ple think of space travel they think of en­gi­neer­ing feats, about just get­ting there, but that’s the eas­i­est part, the big­gest lim­i­ta­tion on space travel is hu­man health: there are changes to the body, sleep cy­cle dis­rupted, degra­da­tion of the mus­cles and bones, and there is a huge im­pact due to ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure, where the lev­els in space are so much higher than on Earth, and we don’t have much data on it. So NEU­DOSE is about de­ter­min­ing where the ra­di­a­tion dose an as­tro­naut gets is com­ing from.

JW: Are there ap­pli­ca­tions for the satel­lite project on Earth as well?

ED: Ab­so­lutely. The main thing we are build­ing is a ra­di­a­tion de­tec­tor sys­tem that is able to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween ra­di­a­tion types in outer space, but it will work in other en­vi­ron­ments, too. For ex­am­ple, in the nu­clear in­dus­try, ra­di­a­tion de­tec­tors can be used to en­sure em­ploy­ees in nu­clear power plants are aware of the po­ten­tial haz­ards. It can also be used in a med­i­cal set­ting to mon­i­tor doses in med­i­cal imag­ing or dis­ease treat­ment.

JW: You said you hope to launch the satel­lite by the end of 2018, what is the next step in the process?

ED: The next mile­stone is a pre­lim­i­nary de­sign re­view, which we hope to have this May. Of­fi­cials from NASA will come up and re­view our de­sign, ev­ery nut and bolt … We have had three team mem­bers who have worked in­tern­ships at NASA in Mary­land, at the God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter, over the past sum­mer and fall.

JW: How big will the satel­lite be?

ED: We joke that it’s about the size of a loaf of bread, and it weighs about four kilo­grams, so it’s quite small.

JW: How much does the en­tire project cost?

ED: The to­tal cost is about $250,000, and we’ve had a lot of sup­port from spon­sor­ships, com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing ma­te­ri­als and soft­ware li­cences; we’ve had $60,000 in ma­te­ri­als do­nated to us. But right now we’re strug­gling to find cash to launch the satel­lite, be­cause $125,000 is re­quired to launch it. We’ve raised al­most $4,000 in two months.

JW: How does the launch process work?

ED: There are launch ser­vice providers, most of them in the U.S. out in the desert, who take up a pri­mary pay­load on a rocket and then have a sec­ondary pay­load like th­ese lit­tle satel­lites; the satel­lites pop out from the side when it reaches the cor­rect el­e­va­tion, and then in about 30 min­utes it will turn on and we will com­mu­ni­cate with it and start gath­er­ing data.

JW: If peo­ple want to find out more about the NEU­DOSE project, or con­sider do­nat­ing, what should they do?

ED: Yes, they should go to mc­mas­terneu­ Tax re­ceipts are avail­able for do­na­tions.

JW: So would you ever want to be an as­tro­naut?

ED: A lot of us have dreams of do­ing that, but it’s a very com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try, to get the chance to do that. And it’s pretty scary, too. I think I’m more of a sup­port-fromthe-ground type.

JW: If this works, do you think even­tu­ally McMaster stu­dents will build an­other satel­lite?

ED: Def­i­nitely, our satel­lite could be used as a guide for others in fu­ture mis­sions to re­search other fields, to ex­plore as­tro­physics or bi­o­log­i­cal sci­ences. The pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less.

JW: Do you be­lieve in life be­yond Earth?

ED: I do be­lieve that, but it will be dif­fer­ent from us, noth­ing quite like the hu­man species.

Erica Dao

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