Celebrating Space Exploration to Answer Life’s Fundamental Questions

Posted by York & U on April 12, 2016

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Night sky
Image courtesy of Federico Beccari

 

Why are we here? Are we alone in this universe? How is our planet capable of producing life? Can we planet-hop and live elsewhere?

 

These are some of the fundamental questions space exploration aims to answer.

 

Today is the International Day of Human Space Flight. According to the United Nations, the day is meant to reaffirm “the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals” and the “common interest of mankind in promoting and expanding the exploration and use of outer space.” In honour of the day, we sat down with two York students in Astrophysics, Jen Zomederis (third year) and Sophia Nasr (fourth year). We picked their brains about Astrophysics, its relationship with space exploration and their experiences as students.

 

When we think of humans in space, we typically picture astronauts in big white suits and flags on the moon. Yet what makes these images happen?

 

Astrophysics is the scientific study of the physical and chemical properties and structures of stars, planets and other objects in space.  “For a mission, astrophysicists create the research questions and space engineers develop the equipment necessary to get the data,” said Sophia. “Once data is retrieved, astrophysicists analyze it. Space exploration is really a team effort.”

 

Astrophysicists also help prepare astronauts go into space. “How much radiation can a person take? What is the weather like on this planet? These are the questions astrophysicists need to answer,” said Jen.

 

Why did they decide to study astrophysics?

 

“It began when I was young, when my mom would take me out for meteor showers,” Sophia explained. “It progressed to thinking about planets orbiting other stars and realizing that we can’t be alone in this universe. Things like black holes and dark matter also fascinated me.”

 

Jen is passionate about the power of science to make a difference. “People are scared of the sciences. If you find a passion in it, it’s really easy to do well. Now that I know this world exists, it’s really hard to walk away from.” “Don’t be afraid of science, It’s not scary. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. With it, we can uncover things we don’t know yet,” Sophia added.

 

Funding space exploration enriches everyday people’s lives too, Jen insists, and she wants to get the word out: she has worked with NASA Social to discuss the organization’s projects online. “The average person can’t read a paper published by a scientist. Through something as short as a tweet, I made important and interesting information accessible for the public.” Jen even got to see some of NASA’s cool initiatives in person, including visiting the organization’s Mission Control and the Mars Yard at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

 

Woman looking through a telescope
Jen at work.

 

“Space exploration can create huge change and push frontiers both on and off our planet,” said Jen. “Not only do we understand our universe better, but even the camera in your phone – that came from space technology.”

 

Jen’s passion for outreach led her to co-found the Hypatia Society, which supports women’s involvement in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through creating a group that acts as a support system for women in these fields, or for those girls and women who plan on pursuing their studies in STEM. The group’s official website, where each mentor can be contacted, will be launched this summer, along with workshops and open-dialogue seminars.

 

Sophia is currently doing research on self-interacting dark matter. Dark matter is “a hypothetical form of matter invisible to electromagnetic radiation, postulated to account for gravitational forces observed in the universe.” Self-interacting dark matter is a theory that asks whether individual dark matter particles are colliding with each other.

 

Sophia admits that she cannot yet specify the potential impact of her work, but reminds us that “we didn’t [originally] know how electricity and magnetism and quantum mechanics could make a difference. Now we have those research questions to thank for developments like computers.”

 

Woman in front of a projector slide about dark matter.
Sophia explaining some of her research.

 

What opportunities has York provided these women to prepare for their futures?

 

For starters, the Observatory on the Keele Campus provides a unique, hands-on teaching facility for both undergraduate and graduate students. Both Jen and Sophia have worked there, providing tours to high schools and other groups and doing research. The Observatory broadcasts live online viewing on Monday nights, where people can see images from four telescopes. The Observatory also hosts York Universe radio, which brings in guest speakers from astrophysics, astronomy, engineering and more.

 

Beyond teaching them how to use a telescope and building other technical know-how, their studies have provided the women with skills important for any company: computer programming, problem-solving, working with huge numbers.

 

Both Jen and Sophia have also gotten valuable experience through the Research at York (RAY) program.

 

“I have collected my own data and analyzed it,” Jen told us. “I have published two papers, which is hard even for someone pursuing a Master’s degree or PhD.”

 

Sophia, too, emphasizes that her research has sent her to conferences and allowed her to network with other others.

 

And speaking of networking: Sophia has served as the president of York’s Astronomy Club for two years. She has organized many events and brought in guest speakers. “Beyond the invaluable experience of meeting experts, I also learned crucial organizational and teamwork skills and bonded with my peers,” she acknowledges.

 

Inside shot of York's observatory, featuring two women on the side.
York’s Observatory.

 

The professors at York have also played a crucial role in these two students’ successes: “We have many great people on campus. There’s Matt Johnson, well-known for his multiverse theory, and John Moores, who helped build the Mars Rover,” says Jen. “These are the people teaching you. York’s profs, they aren’t nobodies.”

 

Sophia adds, “You actually get to know your profs. You will always be a student, rather than a number.” “Smaller classes in later years mean you get even more time. And you get to know all the students. Everyone is friendly, not competitive, with an enthusiasm for learning. It’s what I like in an environment.”

 

And where do Jen and Sophia hope to go from here?

 

Jen wants to find a way to continue doing outreach and sharing her passion for science with the world. Sophia is looking to grad school to finish her research. Then, like many in her field, she dreams of working for NASA.

 

 

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