UBC grad takes UBC technology into space

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

A UBC graduate has boldly gone where no UBC graduate has gone before. Astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason, a UBC Engineering Physics grad, is orbiting the earth in the space shuttle Discovery, which blasted off from Florida Aug. 7.

Tryggvason, a payload specialist on Discovery for the 11-day scientific space mission, graduated from UBC in 1972. He was among six Canadians selected for the astronaut program nearly 14 years ago.

Tryggvason has taken a UBC Engineering Physics cloth crest with him but he isn't the only UBC presence on the mission. The shuttle is also carrying technology developed in the UBC lab of Electrical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Tim Salcudean.

"It's exciting to see the technology our team has put so much effort into developing being used and tested in zero gravity for a prolonged period," said Salcudean, who is in Houston, where Mission Control is located, for the duration of the flight.

Tryggvason first met with Salcudean in the early 1990s after hearing about his research in magnetics from UBC Engineering Physics Lab Director Harold Davis, with whom Tryggvason had been working on large-motion vibration isolation. Tryggvason was trying to find ways to prevent vibrations on the space shuttle from having an impact on zero-gravity experiments, such as those involving fluid flow, crystal growth and metal alloy development.

"Bjarni and I spent two or three hours discussing the application of the magnetic levitation technology that I've been working on for years to vibration isolation. We were both extremely enthusiastic about the prospects," Salcudean said.

"I suggested to him that the best solution would be to magnetically suspend the entire payload," Salcudean said.

That initial meeting led Salcudean and former UBC research engineer Niall Parker to a series of contracts with the Canadian Space Agency. In collaboration with Tryggvason, they developed the basic design of the motion isolating system, or Microgravity Isolation Mount (MIM), now onboard the Discovery.

A prototype developed by Quebec-based MPB Technologies has been tested on MIR, the Russian space station. The Canadian Space Agency further refined the device on Discovery, Salcudean said.

The device, which is about the size of a microwave oven, uses a magnetic field to levitate a platform. Sensors and an onboard computer monitor and control the position of the platform ensuring it remains free floating with a range of motion of about 2.5 centimetres. The MIM's base remains fixed to the shuttle and, because the platform is held in place only by tiny magnetic forces, vibrations created by movement within the shuttle or the firing of thrusters are not transmitted to the platform.

Salcudean, who has numerous other research projects on the go, said MIM design and testing was Parker's main project for three years. Other UBC contributors at various stages of the project include Davis, who has been working with Tryggvason on large-motion isolation for parabolic flights which allow brief periods of zero gravity; and several Electrical and Computer Engineering and Engineering Physics graduate and summer students.

Salcudean, who returns to UBC this month from a year's sabbatical in France, said vibration isolation has many applications both in space and on earth. Terrestrial applications include platforms for sensitive instruments such as scanning tunnel microscopes, and some applications in the electronics industry that require stable platforms.