Illustration: Kosalan Kathiramalanathan

Ryerson grad adapts cellphone tech for NASA

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By Jacob Dubé

Adrian Tang studied engineering at Ryerson, but at NASA, he’s slowly becoming more and more of a scientist.

After the Scarborough native graduated from Ryerson with a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2008, he went on to complete a PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) specializing in high-speed circuits for use in cellphones. He worked on a technology that integrated circuits for processing information, called complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS). Tang wasn’t thinking about using this tech for space-related projects, but other people took notice.

Beside UCLA is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Every day for about five or six months, Tang would travel to the lab to do tests on his circuit designs.

“The people here saw the potential of what [CMOS technology] could do if it was tailored for space, and they grabbed me right after I graduated,” Tang said.

Ever since, the 37-year-old has been a researcher at the lab’s sub-millimetre-wave advanced technology group, working on radar and spectroscopy—a field of study focusing on electromagnetic radiation and wavelengths.

The reason Tang’s projects are chosen for so many missions is because he’s adapting the smaller and cost-effective technology from the cell phone industry to NASA’s projects—allowing for experiments and devices to have the same data output but in a smaller size.

He’s currently working on a project looking into underground oceans NASA believes are inside some celestial bodies in our solar system, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s Ganymede and (possibly) Europa. Tang says because they’re concealed by a thick sheet of ice, these oceans are shielded by cosmic rays in the solar system.

The problem is that these sheets of ice could go hundreds of kilometres deep, and it’s unlikely humans could send out a functional drill to do the job. Luckily, Tang said they noticed there were plumes—geyser-like holes—which might be from the subsurface ocean. He designed the spectrometer for a system that could detect if there are any signs of life down there.

“Are there any organic materials, are there tracers for life like carbon and methane?”

Tang said all projects at NASA are pitched from the scientists themselves. They receive a callout for a potential mission and are asked to propose an instrument to be installed on that mission. That means that every NASA department across the country is competing for the same spots on the same spacecrafts.

Despite NASA’s massive $19.6 billion budget last year, Tang said the advancement of the technology itself moves slowly. That budget has to be split between several departments as well as the upkeep of the International Space Station.

“NASA’s really a heritage house. We’re very conservative because space missions cost a fortune,” Tang said. “People tend to fly what they’ve already flown.” 

So instead of competing with these commercial companies to discover the latest tech before them, Tang simply leverages their advancements for his department. The difference, he said, is that he has to design these circuits to withstand extreme radiation and temperatures for use in space.

Ever since he started at NASA, Tang said he feels more like a scientist than an engineer. NASA prioritizes scientific discovery over a new technological innovation at every turn—if a device is more efficient but less sensitive, it will never be approved. Engineers are mainly focused on technological discoveries, while scientists concentrate more on what results they can get from an experiment.

“An engineer is someone who remembers what people did, and a scientist is someone who remembers what people found,” Tang said.

He said he learned much more working at NASA than if he stayed in the cell phone industry.

“You’re the first one to do all of it,” Tang said. “There’s no papers or literature to look at because it’s all new. You’re making it up as you go. It’s much more exciting than just making another iPhone.”

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