Science and Technology

It is possible to study space at Técnico

Understanding black holes in the universe or building a nano-satellite is possible, and can be a solution for those who want a Master’s degree with a focus on space studies

CENTRA and Black Holes
For professor and researcher Vítor Cardoso from the Multidisciplinary Centre for Astrophysics and Gravitation (CENTRA) of Técnico, who is also a professor at the University of Mississippi, USA, the study of Einstein’s theory of relativity began as a “challenge”. “I decided to seriously dedicate my career to this when a colleague told me he would never study relativity because it was too difficult, and everything that could be known was already known… Nothing like a challenge!”, he explains. Science is grateful – in the last five years, the professor received two grants from the European Research Council (ERC) of 2.5 million euros, funding that is being employed in the study of theoretical physics, including the understanding of black holes, dark matter and gravitational waves.

Vítor Cardoso is also the leader of the GRIT – the group that, within CENTRA, studies the dynamics of black holes and gravitational theories that go beyond Einstein’s theory – where we can find Master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral students, but also professors and researchers. What unites them is simple: the desire to research phenomena that are totally alien and unattainable for most people.

“Right now”, says Vítor Cardoso, “half the world of physics is using highly sophisticated devices to see gravitational waves”. Among these is the supercomputer Baltasar Sete Sóis, used by the group to solve Einstein’s equations and whose name was inspired by a character in José Saramago’s novel “Baltasar and Blimunda”. “Baltasar Sete Sóis is an interesting character because he helps the priest Bartolomeu Lourenço to build his dream”, he told the newspaper Público. “We liked this idea of Baltasar helping to build a dream (…). I can say that, after five years, Baltasar has already built many dreams!”

According to the physics professor, a lack of “immediate” practical applications is not a problem in this line of research. “Curiosity has distinguished humanity from other species, even when you don’t have immediate practical effects. Who doesn’t like to know that Jupiter has rings, or that one side of the moon is always in the dark? Surprisingly, the answer to these questions has contributed to intellectual and physical well-being. The vast majority of the problems eventually bring us more comfort in daily life… But besides all that, understanding our universe and our surroundings is also a matter of citizenship, it helps us to make more informed decisions.”

The ultimate goal of the work done by the group is “to understand”, says Vítor Cardoso, who believes that “being a scientist is a privilege”.

“When answers are found, the scientist has access to something that is timeless and secret. We learn something that no one, until then, had known.” Furthermore, he is convinced that this area will have a huge importance in the future, “exciting times are coming.” One of his greatest pleasures? “Having new students, a lot smarter than me, to teach me and lead this area of study in new directions!”

ISTnanosat in orbit
Another option for those who want to be connected to space through a project is ISTnanosat, the first nano-satellite created by students, professors at Técnico and the Portuguese Association of Radio Amateurs for Research, Education and Development (AMRAD). The project also has the support of aviation and aerospace companies such as CEIIA, Edisoft and D-Orbit.

The satellite, based on the CubeSat model, is being developed by several Bachelor’s and Master’s students at the Taguspark Campus, where a “ground station” was established – a satellite tracking centre – and many of them turn what began as an extracurricular activity into their thesis. At the moment, the project has three missions (but the number could increase or the project can change its nature, said professor Rui Rocha, one among those responsible for it): participate in the HUMSAT project of the University of Vigo, Spain, that aims to monitor remote or inaccessible areas on Earth; study the effects of radiation and thermal variation in space environments on the signal processing in nanotechnologies; and finally to study what we call the “Flyby Anomaly”, the unexpected change in speed that a body suffers as it passes by Earth.

“The goal of this project is to make students apply their knowledge concretely. It is a very challenging project because making electronics that work on Earth and making electronics that work in space is not the same thing: the challenges and concerns are very different”, guarantees the professor who, along with professor Moisés Piedade, was a major project booster. Ultimately, he says, “what we want is that it becomes a flagship project of Técnico students, as the Formula Student Project is today”.

Today, students working in ISTnanosat study areas such as energy, communications or attitude control, the “centre” of the small cube that they hope to put into orbit in two or three years, probably by “hitchhiking” an ESA (European Space Agency) launch. In the future, however, they hope to have more students from other programs such as Aerospace Engineering, working on the satellite structure. “We have room for everyone, even for those not doing a thesis in this area. The great added value, in terms of learning, brought by the ISTnanosat, is that it is a real project requiring students to have direct contact with the real world that awaits them”, says Rui Rocha.