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University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa undergraduate students who have been developing a satellite to launch into space in 2024 earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) In Switzerland for its RD51 Detector School November 27–December 1.

The RD51 Detector School is an intensive one week lecture and laboratory course. The school is primarily for PhD students, making it an incredible accomplishment to have three UH Mānoa undergraduate students accepted.

“This is an extraordinary success for the undergraduate students, and for the earth and planetary exploration technology (EPET) program, which has enabled all of this through its student-centered approach to high-quality undergraduate research and through its support to assist students being successful in their learning and research efforts,” said Peter Englert, a professor in the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP).

students in lab

HIGP developed the EPET certificate to provide undergraduate students with an opportunity to design research projects and build payloads for Earth, Moon and Sun observing satellites with the goal of producing, launching and operating their satellites.

Current EPET students Sapphira Akins, Howin Ma and Chris Freitas applied to participate in the RD51 Detector School. Akins and Ma were accepted for in-person participation in Switzerland, and Freitas was accepted for participation in the online part of the school. All three students are part of the CubeSat Relativistic Electron and Proton Energy Separator (CREPES) project.

“I feel very grateful to be able to study in a community such as the one at CERN!” said Akins. “Programs like these help me to push myself academically. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of micro patterned gaseous detectors, and ways in which we can implement them in space.”

“I believe that the insights and experiences I gain from being a part of such a prestigious institution will serve as a powerful source of motivation, inspiring me to set and achieve even higher standards for myself,” said Ma. “I also love traveling, and experiencing other cultures so I’m excited for my time in Switzerland.”

Mentorship from a leading expert

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In spring 2023, to learn more about gas electron multiplier (GEM) detectors and their potential application to space research, EPET turned to Fabio Sauli of CERN. Sauli is the world’s leading expert on GEM and micro-pattern gaseous detectors. Sauli provided four Zoom lectures to the CREPES group with extensive discussion sessions, which provided the background knowledge in advancing the CREPES project.

The RD51 Detector School will provide Akins and Ma with additional skills that are important in the final design and assembly of the CREPES flight detector, which will be built in 2024. The learning modules of the school include gas detector physics and technologies, GEM foil manufacturing techniques, detector read out techniques, modeling and simulations. Akins and Ma will bring back advanced knowledge to help contribute to the success of the CREPES mission plan.

“In particular, we are working on a project here at UH that is attempting to put a gas electron multiplier in space, a detector that doesn’t appear to have any flight heritage,” said Akins. “Being able to receive valuable hands-on experience with this detector, and many similar, will be significant when it comes to understanding how to properly integrate it into a satellite.”

In November, the CREPES group will prepare a proposal to the CubeSat Launch Initiative to obtain support for the launch of their GEM detector mission into space at the end of 2024 or early 2025. Writing such a proposal is a significant task for a student research group.

School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology supported the CERN opportunity through providing travel resources for the student’s participation. Students have been supported by Hawaiʻi Space Grant Consortium internships, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program internships and conference travel grants.

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