If you’ve somehow misplaced your awe of the universe, Jan Cami advises you to gaze first at the heavens and then at your hands. Not only is the cosmos infinitely out there, it is also within your grasp.
“We have an explorer mindset as a species. With space, it’s something even more than that,” the Physics and Astronomy professor said.
“It’s so far away you can’t reach it. There are so many things that are incomprehensible about it. Yet, we are all made up of the material of stars. It is even possible that the carbon in your left finger and the carbon in your right finger are from two different stars.”
Through the application of physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, engineering – and limitless imagination and wonder – there are millions more discoveries yet to be made, Cami said. “And all you have to do is read the code of the cosmos.”
This is the allure of space, as well as the driving force for studying the origins of this planet, said Cami, Associate Director of Operations for Western’s new Institute for Earth & Space Exploration.
Launched officially Monday, the new institute – known as Western Space – has a mission to send us into space and bring space down to Earth.
Some of the top interdisciplinary research in the country will take place here – from the study of impact craters and meteorites, to discovering the composition of molecules in the farthest reaches of known space, to designing ways of keeping space travellers alive and healthy.
At the heart of that work, though, is the individual and combined expertise of 60 faculty members and more than 40 graduate students from across eight faculties and 19 departments working on practical and existential questions as expansive as the universe itself: What is Earth’s origin story? What is the universe made of? Could we live on other planets? Is there an exoplanet, somewhere out there that harbours life?
“If I had to choose one of the biggest questions facing science and humanity, it would be, ‘Are we alone in the universe?” said Gordon ‘Oz’ Osinski, Director of Western Space and Industrial Research Chair in Planetary Geology.
When Osinski was a kid, he was moderately interested “in stars and things.” But he had no idea how compelling and career-changing that one big question would become. “It was really only when I was doing my PhD that I got exposed to what the space program is and the opportunities there for the likes of myself. That’s what brought me to Canada 20 years ago.”
Today, he leads field training and conducts research in almost every inhospitable Earth climate, searching for clues to identify ancient rocks and simulating conditions for those preparing for missions to the moon and Mars.
For Jayshri Sabarinathan, Associate Director of Training and Education at Western Space, space-related research has been a way to combine her vocation with her childhood avocation.
“I got a telescope around the time Halley’s Comet came (in 1986),” the Electrical and Computer Engineering professor said. “I would watch that with my dad. And we always talked about black holes and stars and space.”
Today, Sabarinathan is principal investigator of a project, in collaboration with Nunavut Arctic College, to design a miniature satellite, 2U CubeSat, measuring 10x10x20 cm. One of 15 CubeSats funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), it must be completed by 2021 in order to be launched from the International Space Station in 2022.
During the past year, more than 40 students, including Engineering undergraduates working on their capstone projects, have made this their passion.
“Western Space allows these large projects to go forward and to invest not just in Engineering students, as in this case, but also Science students,” she said. “The Institute broadens the umbrella about what faculties can be involved.”
Osinski said the expansion into an institute, from what was the Centre for Planetary Space and Exploration (CPSX), builds on Western’s internal research strengths, attracts new researchers and expands upon the national and international projects for which Western is a leader.
“I firmly believe this institute plants Western’s flag. This is an area of strategic interest to us and that sends a clear message.”
Public-sector, private and industrial leaders in space and Earth exploration have all shown growing interest, he said. “They already knew that we’re here but they now understand that because we’re an institute this is an institutional priority for Western.”
The name change from CPSX is “not just symbolic,” he added.
“What we’ve taken is a centre that was nationally renowned and we’ve expanded it both outwards and inwards. By looking out into space, we’ve really brought on board the big astronomy group at Western. But we’ve also brought space down to Earth – that’s important, too.”
The intersection of space and Earth research will see benefits in developing new and processes in the mining and mineral exploration industries. “Technologies we develop for space, the tools the techniques, even the software, can likely be applied to optimizing exploration in harsh environments on Earth.”
Research into human health on Earth and in space also have crossover applications. “We’re now going to be sending humans beyond the protection of Earth. We’ve got to learn how to keep them healthy and alive. And there are a lot of similarities between what goes on in space – bone loss, muscle loss and that sort of thing – and what goes on in aging populations on Earth,” he said.
While Western has been working towards creating an institute for years, the stars have also aligned internationally for this launch. Just one example is that Canada is committing $2 billion towards a partnership with NASA and other agencies, including the CSA, to return humans to the moon by 2024.
“The climate (of space research) in Canada a few years ago was sort of unclear. But still, we pressed ahead in the hopes that would change. I guess the message is that things now have changed,” Osinski said. “Now, Western is perfectly placed to take advantage of what’s going on internationally.”
For Cami – who also heads the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory – Western Space is beyond a dream.
“We have the critical mass of people who have expertise. It’s exciting to me that we have the opportunity to tap into that enthusiasm,” said the researcher whose office, filled with tools and toys of the trade, is an object lesson in what that enthusiasm can look like.
It includes a chequerboard white-and-red rocket representing Tintin’s ‘lunar landing’ in the 1950s comic serial. (“I knew about TinTin going to the moon before I heard about Armstrong going to the moon.”) There’s a 1,087-piece Lego kit of the Apollo 11 lander, a pillow with an image of the space shuttle and a couple of ‘buckyballs’ – models of the carbon molecule structure Cami discovered floating in space.
“I love space. Everything about it is enormously exciting,” Cami said. “Passion was the spark of this idea and the spark of the Institute. I believe passion is the most powerful force in the universe.”