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Oscar project selected to join a mission to ISS space station    Apr 21, 2020

Oscar project selected to join a mission to ISS space station
Apr 21, 2020


De heer Jaroslav HRUBY



The student project OSCAR-QUBE of Hasselt University has been selected by the European space agency ESA to conduct a scientific experiment onboard the international space station ISS. During the coming 1,5 years the 15 students of Hasselt University will be working on the development of a quantum magnetometer with the aim of conducting measurements for four months in low earth orbit.

“Orbit your thesis”, this is the name of a programme for European university students and doctoral students organized by the European Space Agency ESA. The selected team will be granted the privilege to conduct a scientific experiment onboard the ISS during a period of four months. Eight teams from all over Europe, including the OSCAR-QUBE student project of Hasselt University, took part in the competition. Eventually the students of Hasselt University, consisting of students of the faculty of Science and the faculty of Industrial Engineering Science (icw Leuven University), managed to persuade an international jury of experts (ESA HRE / ELGRA / Space applications Services / ESA academy) and thus win the competition. Halfway 2021, the quantum magnetometer of the students of Hasselt University will be sent to the space station, after which their scientific experiments can be initiated.

Unique quantum applications

“We’ve been constructing our quantum magnetometer for quite some years already”, says Jaroslav Hruby, teamleader and doctoral student at Hasselt University. “ A magnetometer is a device used to measure magnetic fields. As most of us know, the Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field. This field consists of many different contributing signals, originating from various sources such as the Earth’s geodynamo, the movement of lithospheric plates, resource deposits (minerals/oil), but also external sources. Think for example about the magnetic storms caused by solar wind, a phenomenon that we can sometimes perceive on earth as the northern lights. It’s also these storms that we want to study using our magnetometer," says Jaroslav. “Our main objective is to prove that, with our device we can decouple and describe individual signals from each other and filter out interference of the spacecraft. If successful, our technology can change the way magnetometry in space is done today.”

“Our magnetometer consists of synthetic diamonds that we 'grow' in our own labs. These synthetic diamonds have an extreme hardness, durability and thermal stability, which makes them extremely suitable for space missions," says Prof. Dr. Milos Nesladek, head of the Quantum Photonics research group at UHasselt. "In these synthetic diamonds we include small atomic imperfections, allowing us to use them as ultra-sensitive sensors. In order to be able to read the signal that these diamonds pick up, in 2015 we developed a technique within our research group called PDMR (Photoelectric Readout of Magnetic Resonance), about which we previously published in the magazines Nature and Science. This technique, combined with the quantum mechanical nature of the sensor, provides an enormous improvement in sensitivity and performance. The PDMR technique also ensures that the sensor has a very small size. Our magnetometer is only a little bit bigger than a 1 euro coin".

Previous mission to the edge of space

The OSCAR team has already gained some experience in the development of this quantum magnetometer. In 2015 and 2018, the team has already been able to carry out tests in a stratospheric balloon, a balloon that rises to the boundary between the atmosphere and space. "The REXUS/BEXUS project in which we were able to participate was organised by the Swedish National Space Agency  SNSA, the German Space Centre DLR and ESA. Here we could test our magnetometer for the first time under the unique conditions at the edge of space," says Jaroslav. "We used the magnetometer to map space weather. The experiences we had here certainly helped us to get our place in the ISS".

Incredible experience

"We are very proud of our students that they are allowed to lead this experiment," says Prof. Dr. Milos Nesladek. "It is a unique opportunity for them to work on an exceptional scientific experiment in space, and it will certainly stay with them for the rest of their careers. At the same time, the quantum magnetometer also has enormous potential, allowing our students to contribute to the search for groundbreaking new applications within quantum technology. This puts not only their project, but also the quantum research in general at UHasselt even more on the map. A domain in which we have built up a lot of expertise over the past years".

One of the students participating in the project is Maikel Kellens, third year bachelor student at the Faculty of Industrial Engineering. "It is still unreal for me that during my studies I can already participate in a scientific experiment that will be carried out in space for four months. Like some other students in our group, I am working as a volunteer in this project, so it is in fact separate from my studies. But of course I will be able to put these experiences to good use in my master's thesis and in my whole later career".