2011 VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize Category Winners Announced

VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize 2011 Category Winners Announced

The profile of Australian space science and engineering has increased significantly over the past few years and, if the quality of applications received for this year's VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize are any indication, the future of Australia's space industry is very bright.

Seventeen applications were received from nine different universities. Australians working in the space industry around the world reviewed the applications, and after a very tight contest, selected five very talented category winners.

The category winners are now preparing their final applications in the hope that they will be selected to join the NASA Academy and spend 10 weeks working with a lead scientist or engineer. As well as expanding their technical and leadership skills, this is an opportunity to further Australia's collaboration with the major space agencies, NASA, ESA, JAXA, CSA and CNES.

One thing the successful students shouldn't expect is much sleep. Between their research project, their group project, site visits, field trips and guest speakers, the 10 weeks will fly by! For a taste of what they should expect check out the Academy Program

NASA will review the five applications and announce the winner in March. The category winners were asked to explain their research topic, and what winning their category and the chance to attend the NASA Academy, meant to them.

Lyle Roberts from The Australian National University
High-Speed Digitally Enhanced Heterodyne Interferometry

Interferometry is one of the most powerful techniques for high-sensitivity measurement in the world. One of its most significant applications is in NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (eloquently referred to as GRACE) which continuously measures Earth’s gravitational field, allowing scientists around the world to discover more about Earth and its natural systems.

Because instruments such as GRACE must be extraordinarily sensitive to the slightest changes in Earth’s gravity, they are also extremely susceptible to noise and interference effects that can limit performance. To overcome this weakness, Dr Daniel Shaddock from the Centre for Gravitational Physics at the Australian National University (ANU) pioneered a technique called Digitally Enhanced Interferometry (DEI) by combining conventional laser interferometry with the same digital signal processing techniques employed by Global Positioning Systems to connect millions of users around the world in environments of hostile interference. This allows DEI to mitigate the effects of noise and interference whilst also enabling it to perform multiple measurements at a single time—a powerful feature that is impossible using conventional techniques.

During my project, I improved DEI’s state of the art by re-engineering the system using faster, higher performance field-programmable gate-array (FPGA) technology, thereby broadening DEI’s range of potential applications within industry. To satisfy the strict operating requirements demanded by NASA's GRACE ‘follow-on’ and 'LISA’ missions, it was necessary to redesign much of the system’s internal architecture such that it could perform at much greater speeds. Considering the challenges encountered along the way (for instance, maintaining the ability to measure a distance smaller than an atom), the overall design was successful, albeit difficult.

This new high-speed digitally enhanced interferometry provides significant benefits that reduce the risk of critical mission failure of the proposed GRACE ‘follow-on’ mission scheduled for launch in 2015, as well as any other interferometry based missions in the future. Other potential applications of this technique include high-sensitivity fibre-optic sensing, which is a rapidly expanding industry within Australia and around the world, which now forms the basis of a novel technology under development by the Centre for Gravitational Physics called an Optical Phased-Array—a device which has already attracted significant interest from NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Receiving the VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize and the Engineers Australia Undergraduate Prize in Space Engineering is an honour I could never have anticipated. I placed my heart and soul into my final year Honours thesis, and to be recognised not only by the university but also through VSSEC and Engineers Australia is a solidifying endorsement of my efforts. I assure you, it was not easy. Now, with the possibility of attending NASA for 10 weeks, I feel nothing but a great sense of inspiration, determination, and elation for this once in a life-time opportunity. I have dreamed of this opportunity my whole life. I thank VSSEC and Engineers Australia for this honour, and I am especially thankful to Dr Daniel Shaddock and Mr Andrew Sutton for guiding me through this extraordinary journey.

Geology and Planetary Geology:
Cynthia Rathini Mahendran from the University of Technology Sydney
Modelling the age relation of impact crater profiles on Mars

Determining the ages of rocks and geological features requires collecting samples of rocks and minerals and using advanced and complex geochemical methods in laboratories equipped with mass spectrometers. Clearly these chronological methods can only be used when samples are available. To establish the ages of geological formations on planets never visited by humans and from which we have no samples, a relative chronology method based on the density and size of impact craters observed on planetary surfaces is applied. This is known as the crater isochron method.

My thesis builds on previous work by my supervisor (Dr Graziella Caprarelli, UTS) suggesting that the degree of erosion of impact craters could systematically reflect the time elapsed since impact, and could be used as a new dating method. To test this hypothesis, we selected three regions of Mars known to have very different ages. The work I carried out involved measuring diameters and depths of thousands of impact craters observed in available NASA satellite imagery and altimetry, to see how the depths of craters change between younger and older areas. The preliminary data collected for my thesis confirm that there is a relationship between depths and ages of craters, as expected. The relationship between the degree of erosion of impact craters and surface ages is complex, however, and depends also on the particular geological histories of the regions one chooses to study. In order to reach a stage at which the relationship can finally be used as a new method for dating geological units on Mars we are carrying out additional work. The principles of this method should also apply to other planets.

I am deeply honoured and amazed to have won my category award. It’s hard to believe for me. It’ll take a while to sink in, but it’s a good feeling. The chance to spend ten weeks at the NASA Space Academy is more than incredible. NASA is a one of the hubs of the space science community, where research is happening in many various and distinct areas by the best minds out there. A chance to see that in action wouldn’t just be a fantastic opportunity for me. It would be an eye-opener.

Space Physics and Astrophysics:
Paul Stewart from The University of Sydney
Postcard from the Edge of the Solar System: Cassini's Ringside View of Mira

The dying red giant star, Mira, is one of a class of stars whose outflows account for 75% of the material currently enriching our Galaxy. This grand galactic recycling scheme sees dying stars expelling matter and fueling subsequent generations of starbirth. Critically for us, this enrichment provides the elements necessary to form rocky planets and the chemical ingredients such as carbon and oxygen, required for life. Surprisingly, after decades of debate, there remains no consistent picture of the basic physics causing these outflows, with progress hampered by the lack of incisive observations at the scale of layering within the star’s atmosphere.

My research used novel observations from the Cassini spacecraft to conduct the first ever observing campaign for stellar astronomy from the outer solar system. By exploiting occultation events in which Mira passed behind the rings of Saturn as viewed by Cassini, infrared imaging data were recovered allowing high angular resolution spatial information, more than an order of magnitude better than anything previously published, to be recovered. These findings were contrasted against predictions from the present state-of-the-art physical models for the structure and behaviour of the atmospheres of stars like Mira.

Being declared a category winner is an immense honour. To me, it is recognition of the quality of my research and the passion and effort that has gone into it. It is my sincere belief that the future of humanity is in space, and I have followed related developments closely for my entire life. Therefore I expect the opportunity to work for NASA, and actually be a part of this critical field, would be my greatest experience thus far. It will allow me to share my passion for space science with others working in the field, and also with a wider audience back home.

Data Processing and Electronics:
Anthony Cheetham from The University of Sydney
Cophasing JWST’s Segmented Mirror Using Sparse Aperture Interferometry

My research consisted of developing an alternative method for fine alignment of the primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a planned NASA telescope considered to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The 18 segments that form the primary mirror need to be aligned to the scale of tens of nanometres to form a continuous surface and ensure the telescope operates to its maximum potential. The process of accomplishing this is known as cophasing. Using a well studied scientific technique known as aperture masking (an example of sparse aperture interferometry), it was shown through simulations that segment positions and tilts could be measured to well within the required accuracy. This provided several advantages over conventional techniques, such as the use of a science camera requiring no dedicated hardware, and the ability to measure the state of each segment directly and reduce the segment errors by 4 orders of magnitude in a single step.

I am extremely proud to have been selected as the Data Processing and Electronics category winner. Working on my project was a lot of fun, and i am humbled that my hard work has been so well appreciated. Working at NASA for a 10 week program would be the opportunity of a lifetime, and would be a huge step in my dream career as a space scientist. Having the chance to work with and learn from such a prestigious organisation is an extremely exciting prospect.

Biology and Human Physiology:
Amy Spark from Monash University
Injectable Tissue Scaffolds: Using Hollow Nanofibres to Form Hybrid Gels

Many very important parts of the body are unable to heal themselves if badly injured, even with the help of drugs and medical interventions. These include the brain, spinal cord and cartilage in our joints. Healing is even harder for anyone who has spent more than a week in low gravity environments such as in space. My project aimed to develop an injectable form of tissue scaffold that would allow cells to be grown within the body to replace permanently damaged tissue cells. Our tissue scaffold contained short hollow fibres made by layering the polymers, heparin and Poly-L-lysine onto short silica fibres and then removing the silica cores. Self assembling peptides were attached to these fibres via an enzyme and as they were assembled a gel-like scaffold formed. As a gel containing hollow fibres this scaffold is able to be injected into the body, eliminating the need for surgery, and is a better match than other types of tissue scaffolds in terms of material properties to the body’s extracellular matrix that naturally supports our cells. Chemicals can be incorporated into the hollow fibres, allowing the best growth environment for a range of tissue systems to be created.

Winning my category is exciting, especially as it provides the chance to study at NASA. The opportunity to participate in the summer school at the NASA Ames Academy would be amazing, as I have aimed at working, even briefly, with NASA since I was a girl. I also love a challenge and this would be a challenge on the ultimate level.