Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The European Astronaut Centre


HI! It is my pleasure to report that I ~passed~my~MSc~defense~.  I'm almost done! :D Now I need to revise before re-submitting. I've made excellent progress so far, I think.

Next stop for me is Cologne, where I am very, very excited to visit the European Astronaut Centre next week!

Interior of EAC facility. The CSA logo is near the back! Photo credit: ESA - D. Baumbach, 2010
Before I discuss the European Astronaut Centre (EAC), I'll mention that it is located on the premises of the German Aerospace Centre  (DLR - Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt) headquarters. I became familiar with DLR at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide last year, learning about their contributions to European space missions, including the High Resolution Stereo Camera on Mars Express, the framework for Rosetta, and cameras for Dawn. For our favourite Earth observation technique, DLR launched the TerraSAR-X polarimetric X-Band radar. But I digress.

Staffed by a team of ESA, DLR, industry, and French Space Agency (CNES - Centre national d''études spatiales) professionals, the EAC is a site for selection, training, and flight preparation for ESA astronauts. Here, European-constructed payloads for the International Space Station are tested before flight. The EAC is also a centre for astronaut physiology and nutrition - very important for the future of human solar system exploration. EAC also studies psychology and mental health. Group psychology is a very important factor in the success of isolated team mission work. Our Axel Heiberg Island expedition team in July 2017 filled out surveys in support of a study for team dynamics in extreme environments. I hope that the results of the survey is fruitful for advising the future of crewed space exploration.

A team of astronauts work together to navigate the
Sa Grutta caves system. Photo credit: ESA

What I think is one of the coolest parts of ESA astronaut training are the CAVES and Pangaea programs. Both of these programs are designed to be analogue training courses. CAVES (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising) focuses on the behavioural aspects of space missions, whereas Pangaea teaches planetary geology. CAVES places the astronauts in the Sa Grutta caves system in Sardinia, Italy. The teams need to work together to perform different geological, biological, or engineering tasks with an emphasis on communication and problem solving.

Pangaea is a course for training European astronauts in communicating Earth and planetary science with Earth-based science advisors. This course trains the astronauts in planetary geological environments and processes, field note taking and sampling techniques, and astrobiological environments for life on other worlds. The field portion of the course takes place in Lanzarote, Spain, which you may be familiar with from Gavin's recent trip. Lanzarote is an excellent site for studying volcanic processes and for lunar analogue research due to its abundance of cinder cones, lava flows, and fissures.

An astronaut practices interacting with a rover
Photo credit: ES
I look forward to telling you more about my visit next meeting! I really look forward to learning about the recent projects and contributions ESA is making towards the future of crewed space flight.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Let's talk about walnuts


I submitted my thesis a couple weeks ago!

Everything I have been working on these past two years is culminating. I need to prepare a pretty long public lecture, (~45 mins at Western? Whaaat? At SFU it was only 20!) and study for any and all questions that may be asked of me.

So instead of talking about that, let's talk about something completely different.

"Isn't your blog supposed to be professional?"

That seems out of nowhere. But, as I am moving away from LondON at the end of May, I've been going through my worldly possessions in exhausting attempts to prioritize what I'll be sending home with my parents to Vancouver, what I'll be bringing to Houston, and what I'll be leaving with Rachel, giving away, selling, or throwing out. One category of these things are non-perishable food items.

I have a lot of nuts.

A. Lot. of. Nuts.

Especially walnuts.

Why do I have so many walnuts, you may ask? Well, I like baking. After a few months of deliberation and buying small, tiny-yet-still-pricey pouches of walnut pieces from various stores, I decided upon purchasing one of those giant 12 cups/3 lbs packages of walnut halves from Costco. I expected this would last me my duration of time at Western, despite, dear readers, being a frequent baker. And it would have been. It would have been.

Alas, during trip home to Vancouver to join my parents on a road trip into the US to see the eclipse and visit Yellowstone, I made some comment or another to my mother about the price of nuts, bulk items at Costco, and the thrifty life of a graduate student.

I'll tell you right now that a walnut is
over 3x that. (~26 kcal  vs ~7 kcal)
My mother is a very generous person, and such comments should not be made lightly.

The trip drew to a close, fall semester began, and life carried on as it would. Little did I know that a heavy care-package was on its way for me. You see, during this time my parents were also moving, and were downsizing on the non-perishable food items that they would be taking with them. In this package I would find nuts. Nuts of all kind. Almonds. Pecans. Walnuts. So many walnuts. Walnuts were in the greatest abundance in this package, and when coupled with the large kirkland-brand bag sitting scarcely touched in my pantry became a colossal accumulation that months of baking hath barely scathed.

It doesn't help that I've been perpetually dieting since Australia.

Fortunately for me, walnuts are the best of nuts to have surplus. They are extremely versatile in cooking, baking, and make an excellent complement to salads and various breakfast dishes. They are also extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids. My diet has contained considerably less omega-3 since I stopped eating fish 13 years ago. Did you know that a mere seven walnut halves provides an adult's daily in take of omega-3? A diet rich in omega-3 is important for mental health [1] and brain development [2]. Lately I've been trying to make a decided effort to eat 0.5 oz of walnuts a day.

One of my favourite family recipes is for "birds' nest cookies". After making the dough, you roll it into little balls, dip the balls in a beaten egg, then roll them in chopped walnuts. Next, you press a little well (or 'nest') in the middle and fill it with jam before baking.  Now that I've written a lengthly blog post all about walnuts, I can be like all those food blogs that tell you their life story before finally sharing a recipe.

Elise's Mom's Special Birds' Nest Cookie Recipe.

  • 1 cup butter (softened)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (granulated)
  • 2 large eggs (separated)
  • 2 tsp vanilla (pure is best, extract works fine)
  • 2 cups flour (all-purpose)
  • dash of salt (whatever that means)
  • chopped walnuts (volume required depends on the surface area of your cookies)
  • raspberry jam or jelly (in my opinion, more is better)
Preheat oven to 300°F (148.889°C for you purists out there)
Cream butter and sugar together
Beat in egg yolks, vanilla
Mix in flour and salt
Make balls of chosen size (recommended, 1")
Dip in egg whites
Roll in chopped walnuts
Place on cookie sheet
Use thumb to make well in dough balls
You can put in the jam before or after baking
Bake for an indeterminate amount of time, because this recipe card doesn't say how long (12-15mins)

You're welcome.

Speaking of delicious walnut baked goods, this past Easter weekend, Rachel introduced me to a nice Korean bakery/street food store in Toronto. Their specialty is 호도과자 ("hodo kwaja") which are these little cakes in the shape of walnuts, filled with a sweet paste made of either red bean+walnut or sweet potato+walnut. These are really nice. Not to sweet, but definitely a nice treat with tea or coffee. I don't have a walnut-mold, but I think I'm going to try and see if I can replicate them at home as spheres.
These are really good, and if you are ever in KoreaTown on Bloor St.you should check them out.

[1] Grosso G, Galvano F, Marventano S, Malaguarnera M, Bucolo C, et al. (2014) Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific evidence and Biological Mechanisms. Oxid Med Cell Longev 2014: 313570.

[2] Bourre JM (2004) Roles of unsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) in the brain at various ages and during ageing. J Nutr Health Aging 8: 163–174.