Space Research at the Canadian Space Agency


The space sciences comprise many exciting fields of research, including life and microgravity, space exploration, astronomy, Earth observation, etc. Access to the space environment, which enables us to better perform the research, is a challenge both technologically and economically. Space research is, not surprisingly, expensive, and researchers often find themselves on long waiting lists for limited space shuttle flight opportunities. The funding and accessibility issues that have limited the number of opportunities for performing research in space in the past are changing, thanks to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS will provide an abundant, long-duration, high-quality space environment for research primarily in the Life and Microgravity Space Sciences--for example, scientists will now be able to run their experiments for up to 6 months on the space station, instead of 6 days on a shuttle. The microgravity sciences include studies in physics, materials sciences, fluid sciences, and biotechnology. Most studies involve some form of fundamental physical property measurement or materials processing. Often the experimenters need to know the mass and heat transfer of the system, which require measurements of compositions and temperatures as a function of microgravity time. The microgravity condition, by removing the gravity component, reduces the complexity of the equations describing the physical system, significantly simplifying and enabling experimental parameters to be measured, which are not possible when the experiment is performed on the Earth at 1g.

After receiving my Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Birmingham, England, in 1985, I began my career working in the U.S. aerospace industry. At the Martin Marietta Laboratories (now Lockheed Martin), I participated in the characterization and implementation of the physical systems being used for space purposes. One of the projects I worked on was the research and development of an AlCuLi alloy, which is now the material used for the space shuttle's external liquid hydrogen and oxygen tank. During this period I was exposed to many types of research, which greatly broadened my knowledge of science in general and helped me to obtain my current position at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). We worked in research teams, which involved scientists from many disciplines and was an excellent melting pot for generating new ideas and for solving problems.

It was in 1996, after a 5-year stint with the Japan Research and Development Corp. Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology branch working on the Tonomura Electron Wavefront Project, that I secured my current position at CSA. As a program scientist in the Microgravity Sciences Program, my responsibilities include selecting and ensuring a high quality of science in the domains of physics, materials science, chemistry, and biotechnology. The selected research experiments are conducted on the space shuttle and, in the near future, on the ISS. I am also involved with the development of four new microgravity research facilities destined for use in the ISS, to support the above domains of science.

Selection of the research to be performed is by a competitive peer-review process through Announcement of Opportunities, where scientists submit their ideas to the space agencies and have them evaluated by other scientists (having no conflict of interest in the outcome of the competition). Through this process, the space agencies become user-driven--the direction of research supported is determined by the outcome of the competition. The process thus enables CSA to support the best research from the ideas of our scientific community. Student involvement becomes possible through participation with the selected scientists at university, industrial, and government research laboratories. A method to find out which scientists are involved is to search the Web sites of the space agencies, which lists many current and past projects.

Because we are still learning about the space environment, most studies involve fundamental research, which are being performed at universities and will lead to more applied research as we go up the learning curve. Often the professors involved are searching for new students, who are the ones who will actually do much of the work. It is advised that students review the current and past projects supported by CSA and then contact the professor who is performing the research of interest to the student. Often the subjects of the research seem esoteric, however upon more careful consideration one realizes that the subjects are often very cross-disciplinary. An example is the topic of evaporation and condensation which applies itself to thousands of research studies ranging from the formation of bubbles during heating to microencapsulation of drugs to production of thin-film semiconductor devices.

Enthusiasm generated by space research is easy to understand, as one learns the beauty of nature and how all things are interconnected. It is hoped that your supervisor will allow you the freedom for your imagination to create great, new things so that you feel your life will count and the world will be a better place because you dared to try.

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