Whether it be social, recreational, or professional, some of what represents me is here. Post a comment, or contact me at should you so desire.

The posts are in reverse chronological order, and are pegged by topic on the links to the left. For more of an introduction, please see the About this site page listed above.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Module 1 at the ISU: What I've learned, where I'm going...

Hello, bonjour tout le monde! How is everyone? How have things been? I've been incredibly busy here in my academic pursuits. ISU, France, and other people have taught me so much about the space industry and about myself and I'm taking this opportunity to look back, to reflect, so that I can keep going, growing, and learning!

First off, let's start with what I've been learning at the ISU. For those of you who forget or are just joining us, the ISU is the International Space University, where I am pursuing my Masters degree in Space Studies. The school is incredibly diverse, promoting the "3I" approach: Interdisciplinary, Intercultural, and International. The work is divided into modules, some running concurrently, including lectures/team assignments, a large team project, an individual project, and an internship. So far, this module has been devoted solely to lectures and team assignments.

In some earlier posts, you may have seen some those assignments featured. On top of the Rocket Design Workshop, and the Poster Conference, we have also had to write a report and present material relating to burgeoning space industries in other nations, and our latest report was on the uses and theory of remote sensing. I will provide a quick summary here.

For the developing space industries, my team was assigned to research Egypt's efforts. It was an interesting exercise, as there is often much more going on than first appears. Long story short, Egypt initiated an institution under their Ministry of Science called the National Authority of Remote Sensing and Space Studies (NARSS) back in 1994 and had been working toward becoming more independent in their space activities. For years, Egypt has been enjoying the benefits of remote sensing (more on what that is in a moment), to investigate their national resources and to make plans for the future, but Egypt also wanted to be able to do this on their own, without relying on the satellites of other nations. They've launched some telecommunication satellites, which they use for national cellular service, and they launched a scientific satellite, but sadly, they lost communication with it and this along with their political instability has caused their space industry to flounder. They have a lot of potential, but while the space sector could help them, working in space requires a lot of coordination and cooperation, which seem to be in short supply in many areas of the world lately.

A moment ago I mentioned remote sensing. You may have asked yourself, "What is that?" Well, that was the purpose of our latest assignment. Simply put, remote sensing is learning information about an object, at a distance, without direct contact. The most applicable example of this is the use of satellites for Earth observation. Every day, satellites fly overhead, collecting information about the Earth through the use of imagers, active/passive sensors, spectrometers, etc., and transmits that information down to ground stations. There, the information is sorted, collected, analysed, and we are able to learn a lot about our planet.

For the assignment, we learned the basic theory of Remote Sensing and conducted a field trip. We were going to go to Mont Sainte-Odile, in the Vosges mountains, which offers a great view of the valley between those mountains and the Black Forest, lining the border of Germany. We were then going to compare what we saw with what several satellites saw flying overhead years before. 

Unfortunately, the exercise didn't work out so well as the weather was not cooperating. Even though the field trip was postponed due to weather, the second weekend didn't turn out much better, as you can see from the picture below, we had limited visibility due to fog.
Each person is roughly 5 metres apart, can you see me?
But the experience was enjoyable. We learned about the convent at Mont Sainte-Odile, enjoyed the local country-side, and had a chance to taste some local wine later in the afternoon. 
My team and I enjoying some local flora (Lime trees, I believe, at least that's what the plaque said)
After that, the last 2 weeks have been moving very quickly. The module ends with an exam which covers everything we've learned so far, and thanks to the interdisciplinary aspect of the ISU, we have to be prepared to answer questions regarding science, engineering, satellite applications, politics, economics, law, and even humanities. 

I have a bit of an advantage in this regard, having come from an engineering background, with a heavy interest in science and the humanities. Much of the material is review for me, but I have learned quite a lot about the breadth of this industry. The law classes were interesting as we discussed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which most countries have signed, ratified, and thus accept to be binding international law, and also the 1979 Moon Agreement, which most countries have not signed or ratified but has some interesting consequences if accepted, such as the Moon belonging to everyone. 

The economics classes have been interesting, and will likely help me better understand what moves this industry and how decisions might be better made to drive this industry forward in the future. Politics and the Humanities classes were interesting as they too have helped me to understand the motivations for going into space and for making the decisions the various space agencies have made over the years.

I have my exam tomorrow and I'm not too worried about it. I've been studying every night for 1.5 weeks and I'm feeling very relaxed. I have some more work to do, and we'll see how the exam goes tomorrow, but I am feeling good.

I have learned a lot about this industry, but I have also learned quite a bit about myself, as usual. Here's a look for those interested. By the way, I plan on posting more about the science and engineering aspects but those take a little longer to write up, I appreciate your patience.

I relearned how much of an introvert I could be. Years ago, I had switched to requiring the company of others to recharge and unwind after a busy, stressful day of class. It actually became a bit of an issue because I felt I needed to be around people in order to relax. But in the last year I have lived alone, and true to form, did not understand how much I had come to take it for granted. 

Here, in Strasbourg, I have a flatmate. Her name is Vatsala, she comes from India, and she is very driven. We met through the ISU students Facebook group and I'm glad we did as it has helped secure an excellent apartment as well as allowing us to become friends. So far, things have been great, but I have had trouble settling in, and I think most of that is due to the fact that I'm used to living alone.

I enjoy my down time, my alone time, and there have been times when I may have been more withdrawn than necessary just because the rules of social interaction at home alluded me. Thinking back, it makes sense. The only people I've lived with, aside from my family, were usually well-established friends, many of whom are introverted and require a lot of time alone. Living with someone new can be interesting, and I have had to work to better understand the benefits and possible challenges.

Another challenge I have faced is my own potential. When I came here, I was impressed and surprised to hear that many of the students already have Masters degrees, internship experience, and that a few are still working in the industry at NASA and other major companies. I felt outclassed. I've earned my Bachelor degree, and I've worked on some interesting things, but what have I accomplished?

Well, the truth is not much, in my opinion. And here is where one has to be careful and really know themselves in order to move forward positively. 

I have not worked in the industry, not yet. The closest I came was either when I worked for Shaw cable (learning more about telecommunications), or when I completed some industry-level projects at York University, but it wasn't official experience. I have worked on several projects, but I have not published any work.

However, I have more experience than I thought. First of all, I graduated with a Space Engineering degree and I find many of the lectures covered at the ISU have been review for me. While this first module is mostly introductory, it has felt good to be on par with things covered so far. 

I also have a lot of what I call "Secondary Experience", time spent working on projects which have helped broaden and deepen my understanding of many topics. Sometimes, it is easy to sweep these experiences aside, ignoring anything other than those shiny aspects you put at the top of your C.V., but this extra experience is often what makes you a more viable candidate and a better contributor to your work.

I have my Canadian Amateur Radio license, which I can use to get my licence here in France. I have taken courses in astronomy and astrobiology (just for fun) which have proven useful, and I have read so many books and journal articles on spacecraft design and spacecraft shielding. While reading isn't the same as doing, and while I sometimes forget about that experience, I keep finding that my understanding is much greater than my C.V. might indicate and I have all those hours I spent reading to thank for that. 

Once this exam is over with, I'm leaving the country. I'm taking a train to Paris, and another up to London. There, I will take a bus to York where I will spend a few days visiting some dear friends of mine. I am very excited for this trip, and will likely report back here about my adventures as soon as I'm done having them. I was too busy to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving but my friends have assured me we will do so together later this week. I have much to be thankful for, and look forward to the adventures to come.

I want to leave you with some words of advice. I have taken some small steps, and one giant leap coming here, but I have so much more to do. So, please, read this comic, inspired by the words of ISS Commander, Canadian Astronaut, and musician, Chris Hadfield. I can think of no better way to live your life than in the pursuit of your dreams, provided those dreams contribute positively to you, others, and the universe.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Poster Conference at the ISU

Communication is vital in the space industry. With so many countries, with such a variety of cultural and disciplinary background, working separately and together, it is very important to learn how to properly communicate across all necessary channels. Additionally, working in space is expensive and often the sciences have to reach out to the public, reminding them why their interest and funding are important. In keeping with this, the students at the ISU this week were asked to make conference-ready posters which effectively communicated one of several themes to entice and attract attention. Let's see how that went, shall we?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

One month at the ISU: Catching Up

Things have been moving quickly here at the International Space University! There have been a few assignments, teams have been working together, and I have been working hard to make sense of it all. I have been learning much, and have much yet to learn, but let's see what I've been up to lately.

This time last weekend, I was finishing up my work for an assignment, and enjoying the fact that I would have all of Sunday off to enjoy and relax. I was feeling good and happy to be productive. Over the course of the week, I continued working on the assignment with my team, and spent every evening thinking about it. A closer look at the work of countries developing space programs, my team focused on Egypt. It was an interesting experience, and I learned quite a lot about international policy, and the state of industry, policy, and politics in Egypt. The presentations were on Friday and I was very happy to get it over with. They all went well, and afterwards, most of us settled in to watching 12 Monkeys a movie I had never seen before, but now highly recommend. It's a little odd, but if you like Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, sci-fi, and time travel, you'll like this one.

I also had a chance to take a closer look at the microgravity chamber at the ISU. At first glance, it doesn't look impressive. A microwave-sized box framed with aluminum and walled with Plexiglas, it doesn't look like anything worthy of the name "microgravity test chamber". However, the setup is incredibly deceiving.

Inside the chamber, there is a wireless camera, and a wireless accelerometer. The latter is what it sounds like, a device which measures acceleration. You likely have one on your right now. Most smartphones these days include at least one accelerometer which can feel when you turn your phone on its side. These devices transmit their information to a computer which can record and display the information. The chamber has an area inside which you may place an experiment, and the chamber is affixed to the ceiling using a strong electromagnet. When the test is ready to begin, you simply push a button and the box falls from the ceiling, into a protective bin, and that's it.

Wait...that's it? How is a falling box testing microgravity? Good question.

While the box only falls for 0.45 seconds, the box and its contents experience a sense of microgravity during that time which is comparable to that experienced on the International Space Station. That's right, a box, in a lab, feels the same microgravity as a multi-billion dollar project.

How? Well, it comes down to understanding gravity. While the exact details of how gravity works are not known as of yet, we do know its effects. Gravity seems to exist anywhere this is mass, anywhere there is stuff, and the more mass there is, the larger the gravitational effect. Microgravity means what you'd think, a lack of gravity. It is not zero gravity, just very small amounts.

Scientists would measure the force of gravity in Newtons, and on Earth, it's about 9.8 Newtons, or 9.8 kg*m/s^2, causing an acceleration downward of 9.8 metres/second. A "gee" is a unit which means the amount of Earth surface-like gravity. 1 gee = 9.8 Newtons. Got it?

Well, the astronauts on the International Space Station, and the microgravity test chamber, experience about 0.01 gees of gravity. This is not due to them being farther away from the Earth, but rather due to freefall.

Remember when I talked about orbits? Well, take a look back on my blog if you don't, but the recap is that when you are successfully in orbit around an object, you are basically falling at just the right speed to constantly miss the object. I feel like I'm Woody from Toy Story saying something like, "They're not in zero gravity! They're falling, with style!"

But that's the basic idea. The astronauts and anything in orbit, are in freefall, constantly falling and missing the planet and this fall gives them the feeling that they are weightless. The same thing applies for the test chamber at the ISU. While it is falling, the accelerometer measures the feeling of gravity and records that it is very nearly zero.

The test chamber has been used for some interesting experiments and every year, the students try to think up new things to try. This was what my team was doing this week. We were tasked with trying to design two experiments which could be used to demonstrate an interesting effect under microgravity.

The experiment had to be easy, small, clean, and it had to be visual and pedagogic, as in educational. I'll have more details on that later as we're still in the working phase.

Other than that, the week's lectures were quite good. This first module is mostly review so it feels a little odd to be attending these lectures. On the one hand, it's good that I know a lot of this already. It is good to review it and it is only temporary as the next module becomes very busy. However, on the other hand, it does sometimes feel like I could be doing more with my time, but that's okay. From everything I've seen, it is simply the calm before the storm.

I've had a chance to review my skills in STK (formerly known as Satellite Tool Kit, not Systems Tool Kit), re-learned orbital mechanics and project management, learned a little about space policy, economics, and law, and had a chance to be lectured by Dr. Gilles Clement, whose work on Microgravity helped interest me in the ISU. His lectures are very entertaining as he uses movie and song clips to help emphasize his points.

For example, in one lecture about Space Psychology, Prof. Clement was describing some problems faced by astronauts and cosmonauts during some NASA-MIR missions. For these missions, NASA astronauts were living and working alongside some cosmonauts on MIR and due to their differences in culture, as well as several mechanics and bureaucratic problems, there were many problems getting along.

In order to emphasize his point, he used the movie trailer for Gladiator to point out the related examples. See if you can match them up!

  • Minimal control over schedule
  • work overload
  • social withdrawal
  • death of a family member
  • dangerous atmosphere
  • fire
  • loss of power
  • crew fiction
  • anger with ground control

In another lecture, he used Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale  to outline the effects of Space Motion Sickness. Follow along and spot the similarities:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness, disorientation
  • apathy
  • impaired concentration
  • headache
  • sweating
  • dry mouth, loss of appetite
  • salivation
  • pallor
  • nausea
Now I will never think of the trailer or that song the same way again. While all the professors here at the ISU are engaging, Clement's lectures are the most entertaining and I appreciate the effort he makes to make the material amusing.

This past weekend has been semi-productive. I went out Friday night with many of my ISU colleagues and had a really great time. However, I stayed out so late that I was not nearly as productive on Saturday as I had wished. I missed the post office hours which means I have to try again through the week. The most difficult part of time management here is that everything closes early on Saturday, if it's open at all, and nothing is really open on Sunday. Most of my work has been after school through the week so it is difficult to get other things done.

It's all a work in progress though, and I'm learning. Today, I have a team meeting to discuss as poster we are tasked with designing. Given the theme of "10 Inspiring Astronauts", we have to design a poster on A0-sized paper which will be conference-ready. It is a good exercise for us as most of us are scientists and engineers and not used to being artistic. However, one valuable thing I have learned from several artists and designers out there is the power of communication. You may have a great idea but if you are unable to share it effectively, your idea might be forgotten.

To all those at home expecting mail of some sort, I know I have been here for a month and I'm sorry that I have not sent anything yet. I am very busy and have run into a few difficulties. I have a growing stack of postcards ready to go out, and I must purchase/fill out a few more. I am waiting until I get every single one ready and then sending them all at once. Should be within the next couple of weeks.

Finally, for those usually interested in the pure science of my blog, I hope my foray into personal matters was not disagreeable. My later posts will be more academically engaging I'm sure.