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Radiation-detecting satellite by team of Canadian students successfully launched into space

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A miniature satellite designed and built by Canadian university students and researchers has successfully launched into space on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Standing only 20 centimetres tall, CubeSat is the device at the heart of the NEUtron DOSimetry and Exploration (NEUDOSE) mission, a project that aims to help scientists better understand the effects of long-term space radiation exposure on humans.

"Space radiation poses a huge risk to astronauts' health," NEUDOSE team member and McMaster University student Taren Ginter told CTV's Your Morning on Wednesday, "and as we're moving forward to further deep-space missions, like maybe going to Mars, we need to understand that risk."

The NEUDOSE satellite launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday as part of NASA’s 27th commercial resupply mission, and it's expected to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday morning.

For the NEUDOSE team members who were on hand in Florida to watch their satellite lift off, the moment was eight years in the making. Ginter was among the group at Cape Canaveral and described the moment as incredible.

"The launch could not have gone more smoothly," she said. "We were all down at the beach ready to see it, and luckily the weather was perfect, so right around 8:30 last night, we got to see the Falcon 9 blast off with our satellite on board."

Ginter and her team designed and built NEUDOSE using a grant from the Canadian Space Agency's Canadian CubeSat Project. After it spends a month or two at the ISS, the satellite will be deployed into low-Earth orbit, where it will collect radiation data for two years. During that period, it will transmit data down to a ground command centre on campus at McMaster where it can be interpreted by the research team.

Part of what makes NEUDOSE unique is the way it's designed to measure specific particles and the way they affect human soft tissue.

"Our radiation measurement instrument actually can detect both charged and neutral particles and discriminate between the dose," Ginter said, explaining that this gives researchers a more detailed sense of the radiation dose astronauts receive in low-Earth orbit.

The satellite also contains a device called a charged and neutral particle tissue equivalent proportional counter, which mimics the composition of human soft tissue.

"It's filled with a mixture of gases that actually give us a really detailed look at how that radiation is going to impact humans," Ginter said.

Ginter and her team hope the data they collect will be of use to major space agencies looking minimize radiation exposure for astronauts.

"We're also hoping that one day, little radiation detectors like ours will become a bit more of a standard," she said. "Hopefully, NEUDOSE is the first of many so that we can move forward making space travel safer."  

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