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By: Joshua Sorell




Q: Can you tell me who you are and what you do?

A:  I'm a space physicist. I work currently as a Research Associate Professor at the University of New Hampshire. Through this role, I've conducted space weather and planetary science research for the last 13 years. I've built up a small research team through NASA and NSF awards and my studies have focused on observational studies of small flux ropes, galactic cosmic rays, and coronal mass ejections, which we call CMEs by short, also known as solar storms. The reason to study these is to better understand their evolution in the inner heliosphere and their interaction with different planetary magnetospheres in the solar system. To build better prediction, and warning systems for when these solar storms might arrive at the Earth. My most recent studies have focused on how these solar storms change as they propagate through space from the Sun to the Earth to improve warning systems.

Since January 2020, I have been involved in NASA's IMAP mission, when I was selected as the Heliophysics future lead for the IMAP-Lo instrument. I'm a Co-Investigator on the mission currently, and for 3 years I was the Deputy Lead for the IMAP-Lo instrument.  Through this role, I was organizing and enabling the team of about 70 engineers and scientists to design, build, and calibrate the instrument. The team is now in the final testing and calibration phase, getting ready for launch in spring of next year.

 

Q: Can you tell me more about the detector you're building for that mission, the IMAP mission? 

A: It's a neutral atom detector, which is basically a telescope, but it doesn't collect light, it collects neutral atoms. This single pixel neutral atom imager is made up of a collimator, conversion surfaces, an energy analyzer, and a time-of-flight mass spectrometer. The conversion surfaces are where these neutral atoms get converted to ions to be able to be accelerated within the instrument. and actually detected because otherwise, they have too low energies to be detected by the time-of-flight mass spectrometer. The instrument also has a pivot platform, so it allows the instrument to be tilted in space to follow the stream of neutral particles coming in from in from interstellar space.

The IMAP mission will go to (Lagrange point) L1, and that's where we'll be detecting particles. The reason that we can detect these interstellar particles is that they're just flowing through our solar system. They are everywhere in the solar system, it doesn't matter whether you're at L1, Earth, or closer to the Heliosphere boundary, you can still actually detect them.

 

Q: What is the heliosphere? 

A: You can think of it as a magnetic bubble surrounding the Sun and the planets. It's kind of like the Sun's sphere of influence, due to the Sun’s magnetic field that's carried past all the planets by the solar wind, which is a stream of charged particles that are coming from the Sun.

 

The heliosphere kind of acts as an imperfect shield against charge particles coming in, for example, against high energy charged particles like galactic cosmic rays. We do still get some of these cosmic rays in, but a lot of it is shielded because due to their charge, they can't come through the magnetic field that surrounds the Sun. The Sun’s magnetic field doesn’t shield against neutral atoms though. These can flow unimpeded through the solar system and that’s why we can detect these interstellar, neutral particles near the Earth with IMAP-Lo. By the way, IMAP-Lo is based on another instrument, the IBEX-Lo instrument on NASA’s IBEX mission, that's been in operation since 2008, still orbiting the Earth, and has been collecting great data on these interstellar particles. 

 

Q: What does studying these neutral atoms tell us about space?

A: It's telling us both about the composition of the interstellar medium near the Sun and it's also telling us about the boundary of our heliosphere. It's telling us about how this boundary is created by the interaction between the solar wind and the interstellar medium. Those particles that come in also can interact with the solar wind and form these secondary energetic neutral atoms that we can detect as well. We can study both this boundary region, as well as the interstellar medium.

From an interstellar medium standpoint, we're looking to improve our understanding of the composition and the properties of the local interstellar medium, by directly sampling this neutral wind that flows through our solar system. We can study the temperature, the density, and composition of interstellar gas, that makes up our Sun's local neighborhood.

 

Q: Is there anything special about our interstellar gas or local space gas? 

A: This is the exciting part, we get to find out more after IMAP launches, when we start getting back data from the spacecraft. Part of what we already know is that the interstellar gas in the Sun’s neighborhood comes from a mix of different interstellar clouds. It's not just one cloud that seems to be surrounding the solar neighborhood, but it's a mix of different clouds. Specifically, we know from a recent study that contrary to the widespread viewpoint that the Sun resides in one of the two nearest clouds —the Local Interstellar Cloud (LIC), it is most likely that the Sun is traveling through a mix of the two clouds, both the LIC and the Galactic (G) cloud.

 

Q: What is space weather? 

A: I'm sure you've heard about it quite a bit in the news in the last while, but it's not usually clearly defined. We like to think of it as these time varying conditions that are driven by disturbances in the solar wind. You can think of it as weather because that's also time varying, but it's caused by disturbances that are usually driven by the Sun. These time-varying disturbances that come from the Sun then affect planetary magnetospheres, ionospheres and atmospheres.

 

The largest of these solar wind disturbances are called coronal mass ejections or solar storms. They are large eruptions of magnetized plasma from the Sun. They're intermittent, so they're not constantly happening, but they vary with the solar cycle. When the sun is most active, you will see a lot more of these solar storms. Whereas when the sun is less active we see a lot fewer. During solar minimum we can see at the Sun maybe three per week, while during solar maximum, we can see about four per day.  These solar storms cause disturbances in the solar wind, which can then drive disturbances in planetary magnetospheres.

 

Q: Are we close to the solar maximum now?

A: We're certainly getting close to it. It's not quite there yet, but probably in the next year and a half we will reach it.  This solar cycle has been also certainly more active than the last solar cycle was, and this has an influence on us nowadays in our more technologically advanced society on Earth. 

 

Q: How does it affect us?

A: Specifically, solar storms are the ones that have the most significant effect, along with solar energetic particles that usually accompany solar storms. They have the most effect as they cause geomagnetic storms and solar radiation storms which can disrupt our technologies, including our power grids, our communication and navigation systems, and they cause damage and failure to our satellites and spacecraft. They can also be hazardous to astronauts, from a radiation dose standpoint.

 

Q: As part of your group with the university of New Hampshire, do you work on how to better protect satellites or is it more specifically finding out how to predict space weather?

A: From a research and science standpoint, it's more about predicting them and more understanding of the fundamental physics of what happens to these solar storms. What do they interact with as they're traveling through space that makes them change their properties that may or may not cause a geomagnetic storm. We try to better understand how to predict them and less about how to protect satellites and other assets.

Something that I've been doing lately is working with some companies, on a consultancy basis, to help them improve their satellite operations to better protect against these hazards from solar storms and solar energetic particles.

 

 

Q: Is there anything else to add or highlight as a Canadian physicist?

A: It’s important to highlight that this is an interesting and exciting time to be a space physicist and to be working in the space sector. From a space physicist standpoint, we have so much data, so many missions that are bringing back data. From the Parker Solar Probe mission,

 

that's basically touching the Sun's atmosphere as we speak, to the Solar Orbiter mission, by ESA, we have tons of data that's available from the inner solar system to  improve our understanding of the evolution of the plasma environment from the Sun to our planetary neighborhood. Having that wealth of data to be looked at and analyzed, is a really privileged time in history, as we have never had this much data available before.

It is also an exciting time from the standpoint of the growing and burgeoning commercial space sector. With many private space missions, not just to low Earth orbit, but also to cislunar and interplanetary space, there is a growing number of companies that are doing interesting work from Earth observations all the way to going to the moon, and hopefully to Mars.

From a student standpoint, there are many small CubeSat missions that are being worked on and built by students. For example, the ORCASat satellite is a small CubeSat that was built at the University of Victoria by students and was launched in late 2022. At the University of New Hampshire, we currently have a CubeSat that's being built by students as well, called 3UCubed. As a student it's an exciting time to get involved and be at a university where these types of projects are available, and to get trained hands on with space technology.

Given the growing space sector, it is likely that there will be quite a few jobs opening in the next 10 years with a need for aerospace engineers, systems engineers, mechanical engineers, and scientists who have  hands-on experience with space hardware and software.

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By: Joshua Sorell



Photo Credit: University of Winnipeg


Q: Tell us about the asteroid Bennu and why it was chosen for a sample return mission.

A: It's what's called a near earth asteroid, which means that its orbit comes close to or intersects the orbit of the earth. Doesn't mean they're on a collision course. It just means that the ellipse that defines its orbit at some point is close to the orbit of the earth. So that provides an opportunity to visit these kinds of asteroids with current rocket capabilities. That's the first the first thing that goes into selecting Bennu as an asteroid for this sample return mission.

The other part is that there are different compositions of asteroids out there. Bennu is one of a small group that are very dark and that suggests that it may have organic compounds on its surface that darken it. You can think of like ashes from a fire or charcoal, think of how dark they are. They're dark because of the kind of organic molecules they contain. For that reason, Bennu is of interest because if it also contains a lot of organic molecules, then that's good for people that are interested in what role asteroids might have played in seeding the earth with organic molecules that could have helped kickstart life arising on the earth. That's a main science goal, does this thing contain organic molecules? And what kind of molecules are present on the surface?

The third reason it was chosen is because the way the orbits of earth and Benu work meant that it could be accessed during this period when the mission was approved.

The fourth point was we wanted an asteroid that was big enough that it could be it could represent maybe different rock types on its surface. We wanted something carbon rich, decent size for spacecraft operations, near earth, and carbon rich. Bennu ticked all the boxes and so that's why it was chosen.

 

Q: You are going to get as part of the Bennu sample, for testing at the University of Winnipeg?

A: That is the plan. Yeah. For background, Canada contributed a science instrument to the mission that was paid for by the Canadian Space Agency. And in exchange for that, we get 4 percent of the sample that comes back. Once they open the capsule and have a look at the sample, Canada will pick its 4 percent and that sample will eventually come to Canada. Probably be housed at the Canadian space agency headquarters in Quebec. Then from there, we will probably get a sample here at the university of Winnipeg to do some analyses on

 

Q: Do you have any idea when you will get a piece of sample?

A: I have rough ideas and I'm not sure that my rough ideas are right. Part of it depends on when they open the capsule, when they decide to split the sample, when they have the facility available at CSA to store the samples, there's a lot of things that have to happen. My best guess is that we will get a portion of the sample probably in the spring of 2024 sometimes.

 

Q: When you do get a sample, What is your lab specifically going to be looking for?

A: One of the strengths that we bring to the analysis of the sample is that there's different ways of analyzing samples. Some you have to maybe dissolve a piece in acid or do something to it, which is what we call destructive testing. We work with what's called optical spectroscopy, which you can think of it as very high tech digital cameras that looks at the sample across hundreds of wavelengths, as opposed to, the red, green, blue of a cell phone camera. We've got, let's say, very high end digital cameras and the advantage of what we do is that we can look at the sample while it's held in like a sealed canister with a glass window on it. When you're analyzing a sample as precious as this, that's normally the procedure you take. Is let's study it with these non destructive techniques that we have and then eventually we break the sample apart and we do different kinds of analyses that are increasingly destructive. We're always sort of the first, the technique that we use is spectroscopic technique is usually the first thing that we do to a sample because we don't have to crack open the container. We can do it non destructively and it doesn't harm or change the sample in any way.

 

Q: What will you specifically be looking for in your lab?

A: Two things. One is that we've studied the asteroid from the spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was orbiting around Bennu for about a year and a half, so we studied it a lot and we made some predictions about what it's made of. One of the first things I want to address is did we get it right or wrong? If we got it wrong, how wrong were we? I really want to see whether our predictions of Bennu's composition without having a sample in hand, were they correct? And the sample that we bring back will help us to address that.

The second thing that we want to do that's of interest to me and a lot of people is as you mentioned, looking at the organic the organic part of the sample, like the carbon hydrogen molecules that are in there. I mentioned before that we think that the organic molecules that we needed on earth for life to arise came from asteroids and what we really don't know is how complex those molecules were. I'm not a biologist so I can't really speak to this like in gory detail, but if you think of life on earth, we talk about things like proteins and amino acids and those kinds of things. We're not sure if those are present in on asteroids. One of the things we want to look at is what's the complexity of the organic molecules that are on Bennu and from that, it sort of tells us how close to life were we with the stuff that fell to earth before life evolved here. That's a big question for us.

 

Q: Will you need to make any custom changes to your lab for the coming sample?

A: We've been set up for a couple of years now to work with samples in sealed containers and so I think we're pretty much set to analyze the sample. One of the main things we want to do with these samples is not to expose them to the terrestrial environment. We don't want to expose them to air where there's moisture that could make the samples rust. We don't want to expose them to microbes that could screw up our organic analysis. We have worked with samples, like samples of the moon, for instance, where we want to apply the same kind of protection to the samples. Bottom line is we are set up and we have worked with these kinds of samples before. We're good to go.


Q: That's pretty much all that, all the questions that I had. Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: I was just thinking back like you know, the mission was selected back in 2011, maybe 2012. I remember vividly being here at the university and we watched the launch of the mission on a big screen and that was back in 2016. years ago. I look back on it's like, damn, that seemed like it didn't seem like 7 years. It seemed like, oh, we just launched this stupid thing and now it's coming back to earth. Space missions are long, but when you're part of the mission, it doesn't seem that long. I wasn't sitting back, fretting, waiting seven years for the mission return, I work on other space missions too, but sometimes the years kind of kind of fly by. I'm just happy that the sample made it back safely. Looking forward to opening it up and seeing what kind of goodies it brought back for us.

By: Joshua Sorell



Photo Credit: Canadian Space Agency



Q&A Jenni Gibbons CSA astronaut interview


Q: Please tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 

A: Thank you for having me with you. I'm Jenni Gibbons. I'm an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. I wish I could be with you in person, but I am on the phone with you from Houston, Texas. I work pretty much full time down here at Johnson Space Center. 


Q: Did you grow up in Calgary, Canada?  

A: I did originally, I'm from Calgary (Canada). We moved around a little bit when I was younger, but I was born in Calgary and now much of my family lives in British Columbia. When I am lucky enough to come back and spend time in Canada, I go over there to see them or spend time at the Space Agency in Saint-Hubert. 


Q: Can you play an instrument?

A: A long time ago I used to play the trumpet. it's been years since I played, but I used to really love it.


Q: Can you tell us about the Artemis missions and what they are? 

A: Absolutely. We're all very familiar with the Apollo missions. Those wonderful missions that took us to the Moon for the first time 50 years ago. Artemis is the next generation of, I would say, deeper space exploration. It's taking that groundbreaking science that we gained from Apollo, and I think of it as a mix of that Apollo plus the International Space Station program, which is, just by nature, a collaboration by so many different partners on Earth that's made it much more sustainable. If you'd like to think of Artemis as kind of a Venn diagram of those two things. The groundbreaking science of Apollo returning to the Moon, but also with the international component, that's the best way to describe Artemis. 

It's a set of return to the Moon missions. The first crewed mission will be Artemis II, which Canada is fortunate enough to have a seat on that's filled by Jeremy Hansen. And that is going to be, I would argue, the most critically important human mission, in space, in over 50 years. It's going to be a lunar flyby and we're going to learn an enormous amount from that. 


Q: You are the backup for the Artemis II mission for Jeremy Hansen. How did you learn that you were going to be a backup for that mission?

A: I learned kind of behind the scenes a little bit before it was publicly announced, and I'd kind of quietly been doing some training and some suit fit activities for that. I learned through a discussion with my colleagues and some work with Jeremy. All of them had been very, very supportive throughout that process, but since it's been announced, I've really gotten started with all of it, it's been great.


Q: Can you tell us about a bit of the astronaut training, like what you're going through to train to be an astronaut? 

A: When I first arrived in Houston, that was 2017, we undergo what's called our basic training or our astronaut candidate program. And that takes two years, and it fully qualifies you to fly in space, mostly for the International Space Station. You learn how to do spacewalks, you learn Russian, you learn how to fix and maintain the systems on the International Space Station, and you learn how to work the space station robotic arm, Canadarm2. Joshua Kutryk and I both completed that, Joshua Kutryk being my colleague who I was selected with. Since then, we've been doing various mission support activities, and now that we're both assigned: him to the International Space Station, and I'm assigned as the Artemis II backup, my focus has shifted more to preparing for that mission to the Moon.

Right now, I'm involved with developing the procedures that the crew is going to need on that, just under, two week-long mission. I'm developing a lot of the crew training. For future Artemis crews, I'm sitting in simulations with the ground team, helping them prepare for troubleshooting and problem solving for any issue that the crew or the capsule might encounter.

I'm preparing for recovery tests for the capsule after they splash down, and I'm also training myself, so not only am I training to be a crew member, should there be a situation where I need to, I need to step in for any reason. I'll be prepared to do that to support the crew however they need it.

I'll also be acting as Capcom, so the voice in Mission Control, which speaks to the crew when they are on their mission around the Moon. Joshua Kutryk and I both have a lot of experience being a capsule communicator for the Space Station.  We sit in Mission Control and support that crew with whatever they're doing and whatever they need, we've both done that for regular operations and we've both also done that for spacewalks. Being what's called a ground IV, that stands for intravehicular officer, the ground IV act as the communicator for a spacewalk. And we've both done that as that role as well.


Q: There was a delay, just announced for the Artemis mission this last week, has that affected your training at all? 

A: Not really. I mean, we are so far out, it means that the goal that we're all working toward has shifted, but we all signed up for this being very aware that it was a new program. It's a pretty complicated mission, a very complicated mission, more complicated than we've done in a long time. To prepare for that, we're going to have to do a lot of additional work. All the partners will not commit to doing that until we really are ready to go because it is the first crewed flight of that capsule.

We are aware that something like that could come along and preparing for it. So, of course, kind of like the finish line has moved out, but the team has stayed focused. I wouldn't say that there is any sort of change in pace or, change in attitude from everyone. Everyone's still really focused on the mission and feeling excited and prepared and just trying to get everything done, making sure that it's safe. No big impacts beyond that change, like a shift out in focus. we're just continuing. 


Q: Could you tell us about safety for the Artemis II trip? 

A: Artemis I was an uncrewed mission, a demonstration flight, and a lot of the hardware performed incredibly well. It was a very successful demonstration flight. Artemis II will be the first crew demonstration of the Orion capsule and a lot of the hardware is undergoing testing and the priority above everything else is going to be crew safety. It's at the forefront of everybody's mind as they're undergoing the development and all the logistics for this work.

That's a big part of, as NASA said in the press conference, of the timeline to Artemis II and beyond. It's just we're not going to go before it's ready. It really is the most important thing. NASA is applying all their risk management work like they've done previously. There really is such an excellent culture of thoroughness and preparedness at NASA, which has been driven by past lessons learned and is necessary for missions where there is so much inherent risk.  


Q: What methods are there to keep you safe or an astronaut safe from radiation when they're going around the Moon? 

A: First, our radiation is tracked. We have a pretty rigorous medical program where we have annual medicals for every astronaut that is willing to participate who has ever been to space. And there are yearly medicals after you retire as well. There's a big database where we're collecting information for the effect of spaceflight and radiation on the human body. Your individual dose and risk are tracked. Tracked based on your space flight and your exposure along the way. It's something that the team is very focused on keeping us safe throughout.

It’s a risk that a lot of us are exposed to and willing to accept. Artemis I had some interesting test possibilities of a vest to keep astronauts safe from radiation on one of the dummies that was flown. They're looking into novel ways to keep astronauts safe. The exposure is much higher than it is in the International Space Station because we're out of the magnetosphere of the Earth so it's ongoing work, and it's something that the teams are looking at.


Q: Okay, so can you talk to us about fire safety? I know you studied fire propagation in zero g. Could you tell us about that and how you protect against fire on a space mission?  

A: When we look at fire safety in general, the main concern is the materials that we're using. Everything that flies up there must pass fire safety tests and be rated to be up there. Then crew is trained to respond. A fire is one of the big emergencies that we train to protect both ourselves and our vehicle, should it ever happen on the International Space Station.


There are combustion experiments in microgravity environments, whether they're on parabolic flights or drop towers, or even on the International Space Station. The first thing you'll notice is that the flame has a different shape than it does here on Earth. We always think about hot things being lighter, so they rise here, but there's no stratification based on that density in a zero G environment or microgravity environment. The flame appears spherical; it's a cool looking flame.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: I know that you have a very space savvy audience. I want to add an emphasis on how important space is for Canadians. That's a message I always try and talk about. I think for a country like ours, that's so enormously vast and so diverse, I just want to talk about how critical space exploration and the space agency and space activities are because it really is one of the only ways that we get to monitor the health of our country on our planet. When we're looking at things like changes in permafrost or ice sheets or the health of our forests, to how natural disasters are affecting our cities and our people, to food security, all of those either Earth observation or let's say the distribution of food. All of that is related to space exploration and entirely enabled by activities in space. I would hope that people have that connection that they've made. It's not necessarily an obvious one unless they've spent some time thinking about it. I guess I would just like to talk about encouraging Canadians to find out more about how their daily lives are impacted by space science and space exploration and what it brings us. We don't have to look too far, and you can just look at your breakfast table and understand where your food comes from, or the technology that enables your phone or your GPS, to recently the need for remote medical care during the pandemic. That's not too dissimilar an issue for remote communities as medical care for astronauts on longer term space missions. Especially deep space missions if we think about something like Artemis. I wanted to mention as well how important space is for Canadians and of course they're curious about it and I absolutely love that about our country in general. 

I would love to learn more about remote healthcare. Medicine is not my area of expertise; it is not my background. I'm a mechanical engineer by training and then I got into combustion. It's something where I really think the space agency could make a big impact. For all these remote regions that we have in Canada providing medical supplies and we have some cool projects, both the Health Beyond initiative and then the Connected Care modules. As well at the space agency there are just cool initiatives that students can also get involved with, we have a lot of outreach activities. It's not something that is my area of expertise or my wheelhouse. I'm certainly interested in it, and I think it's one of the places that Canada can make a huge impact in both the space world, but also at home.

Q: Thank you Jenni for the great interview and meeting with me today.


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