Student helps NASA test telescope

By Matt Terry, September 9, 2009

    Evan Sinukoff, left, with his supervisor Dave Leisawitz in front of a model of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Most students spend their summers the same way: relaxing at the cottage, waiting tables at the local pub or playing in a softball league. Evan Sinukoff spent his working for NASA.

In fact, the fourth-year honours physics co-op student has spent the last eight months at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, helping to develop a telescope that may one day be launched into space.

If approved, the proposed Space Infrared Interferometric Telescope known as SPIRIT could be ready to launch by 2020 and is expected to provide views of planet, star and galaxy formation in unprecedented detail.

Before the SPIRIT mission can take flight, however, its capabilities must be developed and demonstrated in a laboratory setting. Called the Wide-field Imaging Interferometry Testbed (WIIT) project, a scaled-down, functionally equivalent model of SPIRIT's optical system has been built on-site at Goddard, providing a means of testing the telescope's technology.

Though he had little experience with computer programming before taking the position with the space agency, Sinukoff quickly found himself tasked with developing a computer model of WIIT. Data from the model, which simulates light from a variety of celestial bodies passing through the testbed, can then be compared to real WIIT data.

"I definitely learned a lot of new skills," said the native of Thornhill, Ont. "But I also realized that I have a lot more to learn. It was a real incentive to get back into the classroom and absorb as much as I can."

Though most employees at NASA have attained at least a Master's degree and he has yet to complete his B.A., Sinukoff was nevertheless invited to give a half-hour presentation on his work to the space centre's scientists. He is also awaiting the publication of his paper on the computer model he spent his time working on.

Having landed the job after working for Christine Wilson, a professor of physics and astronomy at McMaster, Sinukoff will be heading back to Greenbelt for his next co-op term. In fact, he's considering doing his graduate work there.

"If I could end up with NASA, it would be a dream come true," he said.

Intrigued by the final frontier since his curiosity was piqued by a book on planets that he read as a child, Sinukoff says he has always been interested in the big questions, such as how we got here and what else is out there. He says he continues to be fascinated by the immense size of celestial bodies.

Living as close as he did to Washington, D.C., Sinukoff had the chance to see one of this planet's biggest stars, U.S. President Barack Obama, when he attended his inauguration last January.

Though he just finished his co-op term and is scheduled to return to classes, Sinukoff can't wait to get back to NASA.

"It's a real learning experience down there," he said. "It really gives you an idea of what you can work towards."