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February 6th, 2017

NASA and Students' to Send Small Sat to Measure Radiation Impacts on Astronauts

Erica Dao is one of the lead McMaster researchers working on a satellite that will measure radiation. Erica Dao Submitted photo

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 US 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 mcmasterneudose.ca. 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-from-the-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.


905-526-3515 | @jonjwells

Jon Wells  Hamilton Spectator