Science & Technology

The Montreal Space Symposium explores the future of aerospace research in Canada

From Oct. 5 to 6, the Montreal Space Symposium welcomed a variety of speakers to showcase recent advancements in Canadian Space research. 

Sylvan Laporte discusses why space engineering matters

In an exciting talk at the Montreal Space Symposium, Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Sylvan Laporte discussed current and past achievements of Canadian aerospace engineering and explained how students can be a part of its future. He addressed the importance of not only pursuing involvement with the CSA, but with all space engineering fields; the multibillion dollar-industry is thriving again for the first time in decades due to immense investment from the private sector. Rising leaders in commercial aerospace such as SpaceX and Blue Origin continue to innovate beyond the limitations of the CSA with technologies such as refuelable, self-landing rockets.

Laporte also mentioned two new Canadian astronauts, Joshua Kutryk and Jenni Sidey, and the process they had to undergo to qualify and train for their brief mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next fall. Their training took place over two years at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and involved special survival, psychological, mechanical, and life science study. Kutryk is a test and fighter pilot from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Sidey is a McGill Engineering graduate and lecturer in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge—where she received her PhD in engineering.

Laporte reviewed the training and testing necessary to prepare the astronauts for the unpredictable and dangerous technical difficulties that can occur on the ISS. They had to undergo creative thinking tests after being exposed to situations of intense physical and mental strain. This experience, he said, proves vital: Especially during tasks such as those performed recently on a space walk by two American astronauts who replaced the Latching End Effector of the Canadarm2, which is the part at the end of the arm which serves as its “hand.” Their training included submerged space walks and a helicopter crash simulation at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, as well as several days of Land Survival Training at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine.

-Jovi Sidhu


The truth about black holes: Daryl Haggard separates fact from fiction

Daryl Haggard, assistant professor of Physics at the McGill Space Institute studies the gradual growth of  supermassive black holes and their host galaxies. She is a newly appointed member of Joint Committee on Space Astronomy (JCSA), the Canadian astronomy community's representation in liaison with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  

“A black hole is simply an object for which the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light,” Haggard said. “The black hole is not sucking material in, it’s just not letting anything back out.”

Haggard emphasized that, contrary to popular belief, black holes are not vacuums in space, but rather entities that trap photons. Since black holes do not emit light, they are essentially invisible.

“They are a mathematical infinity […] or a perturbation in the fabric of space-time,” Haggard explained.

She illustrated this phenomenon using an enlightening analogy: If we took the Earth’s mass and compressed it into something the size of a sugar cube, our planet would become a black hole.

Black holes do grow—despite not “sucking” anything in—by merging with other black holes.

“[When merging] some of their mass gets converted to energy, sending out ripples through space-time called gravitation waves,” Haggard said.

Einstein predicted this phenomenon over 100 years ago, but modern scientists detected it only two years ago. Haggard hopes to study the same phenomenon, but with supermassive black holes.

Black holes remain one of the most mysterious and intriguing features of our universe. Haggard’s concluding message, however, was quite clear.

“Black holes are awesome and they really don’t suck!” she said.

-Julia Briand


Engineers Michael Khor and Michel Lortie bring software from rovers to cars

Despite their everyday applications, Insulin pumps, GPS, and UV-light-blocking sunglasses, are all products of space science; each tool was designed for use in space before being used on Earth. Both presenters, Michael Khor and Michel Lortie, work for Neptec.

According to their website, Neptec “produces electro-optical and electro mechanical systems for mission critical space applications.”

Among other things, the company makes Light, Imaging, Detection, and Ranging (LiDAR) systems. LiDAR  is a laser-based optical system that allows for the detection of an object’s proximity and shape. While scientists initially designed LiDAR for use by NASA to accurately pilot vehicles like rovers and shuttles, the software has landed on Earth. Currently, the Mars rover and Tesla’s self-driving cars use a combination of optical cameras and radar to process the 3-D world. According to Khor, however, these systems present problems.

“The issue with cameras is that they are affected by lighting,” Khor said. “[They’re] not good for night-time, and can be affected by oncoming headlights. [Radar], on the other hand, is really good at detecting objects and their [relative] distances, but does not offer any information about their shapes and size.”

While these traditional optical-radar systems work fine during the day, they falter in dark or foggy conditions—motivating Neptec to replace these limited systems with LiDAR. Unfortunately, LiDAR systems are still far too expensive to be applied widely to commercial vehicles. Khor and his team hope to bring these costs down, and employ the technology in our everyday lives.

-River Ludwick


Bayar Goswami on conscientious space development

Science fiction creates an avenue through which everything from human space travel to extraterrestrial mining can exist.

Bayar Goswami, Masters of Law graduate at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill, raised these crucial considerations during his talk at the Montreal Space Symposium.

According to Goswami, the constant race for development on Earth will now begin to move into outer space.

“The blind chase for resources has led us from colonization to industrial revolution, to globalization, and now to the epoch of the Anthropocene,” Goswami explained. “[We] are extending this race for resources to outer space now.”

Only a loose set of ‘soft’ laws—or non-legally binding principles—regulates the development of outer space, such as the Outer Space Treaty.

Goswami illustrated a science fiction-based future scenario for the human race.

“Imagine a doomsday with habitation in space as the safest […] bet against extinction.” Goswami said. “Only the richest of human beings, from the most developed countries, and privileged with friends in high positions will survive.”

Answering questions about which demographics would benefit from development in space and what such a development would look like won’t be easy.

“I’m confident we need to completely reimagine the whole development and value system for human global society where we actually learn from the mistakes,” Goswami said.

If current society must eventually be replicated in outer space, Goswami believes the human race is designed for doom. However, he hopes to combine natural and social experts into the conversation about cosmic development.

“But before we dream big,” Goswami said, “let us glance through our history [and learn from our mistakes].”

-Kimberly Johnston

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