By: Laura Woodward
Most students may not know who Ryerson graduate Adrian Tang is. However, they may soon know him as the first person to capture an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon. Tang now works with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is one of their most highly regarded researchers.
Tang, 33, completed his masters degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2008. He then became Ryerson’s first student to get accepted and complete a PhD program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where Tang’s career skyrocketed, literally.
“NASA has this ambitious plan to capture a comet or asteroid in 2017 and put it in orbit around the moon. We’re designing an instrument to drill into that comet to measure the chemicals inside,” Tang said.
Tang’s PhD study specialized complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS). CMOS is a technology used for constructing integrated circuits. These circuits are used to do the thinking and calculation processing within technology like smartphones. Before working for NASA, Tang would often have to use NASA’s equipment while working with CMOS, which was how he was first introduced to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
“I would frequently make the trip from Los Angeles to JPL in Pasadena with a box of chips, so that I could use their equipment to make my measurements,” Tang said. “When they saw what I was working on, they’re like, ‘Hey, you should come here!’”
Tang was then hired on the spot, by supervisor Peter Siegel, as his work would become valuable to future NASA projects.
The CMOS Tang was working with uses little power, is cheap and is small – all of which would be useful for NASA missions.
NASA missions are limited by the power they consume and the volume of space they occupy because of the high cost and lack of space available on a spacecraft. Tang’s ability to “think small” reduces the size and weight of instruments brought along in the spacecraft, allowing more instruments to be flown on one mission and improve NASA’s research.
“Right now we’re trying to use electronics from cell phones to process chemical signatures. Normal cell phones process calls but we’re interested in if we can make it process chemical signatures for space,” Tang said. “The reason we want to do that is because the technology in the phone [is] actually a lot smaller and [uses] lower power than what NASA is using.”
This process system Tang discovered will be used in the current mission called Spectrometer-on-a-Chip. Tang’s small chip design will be put in the drill mechanism to extract the chemicals from the asteroid dust NASA plans to capture. But this type of technology has never been exposed to space.
“Space is a harsh place … places like Mars, Venus and Europa exist at extreme temperatures, sometimes well below -100 C or beyond 300 C,” Tang said.
This concern may also be an issue for Tang’s second project he is working on — the Europa Clipper mission —which is an investigation of whether Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, could harbour conditions suitable for life.
“This mission is planned for 2022,” Tang said. “There may or may not be an ocean underneath [the ice crust of Europa] and there may or may not be life in that ocean. We suspect there are plumes of water spraying out of the ice in certain places, so we’re going to go look for that. Then we’re going to look for chemicals like carbon and nitrogen in that water and that will tell us if we need to look for life.”
Similar to the technology Tang is working with that processes signals from cell phones, he will use it to process the chemical signatures of whatever the instrument may detect on Europa.
While Tang’s engineering knowledge is undoubtedly the reason for success, he claims without a skill of writing, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“Technical writing is a big part of my career, and Ryerson taught me that,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is a waste of my time, I need to go back and study math.’ But now I’ve learned it’s the exact opposite,”
“In a place like NASA, everybody is smart and everybody has good ideas. The reason I’m successful is because I can write [these ideas] very, very clearly. And convincing someone that your idea is better than everybody else’s idea is the most important skill you can have as a researcher.”