Researcher anecdotes: cosmic predictions

Auriane Egal is an astrophysicist at the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. She’s an assistant professor at Western University and collaborates frequently with NASA.
Credit: Espace pour la vie/Marika D’Eschambeault
Auriane Egal est astrophysicienne au Planétarium. Elle est professeure associée à l’Université Western et collabore fréquemment avec la NASA.
  • Auriane Egal est astrophysicienne au Planétarium. Elle est professeure associée à l’Université Western et collabore fréquemment avec la NASA.
  • Malgré les embûches et les péripéties, cette mission d’observation de la chute d’un débris d'Apollo en 2015 au Sri Lanka reste l’une des plus grandes fiertés de la chercheuse.
  • Campement dans le désert d’Atacama au Chili, lors d’une mission de récupération de météorites et de fragments de roches de geyser en 2017, avec l’IMCCE de l’Observatoire de Paris.
  • Qui va à la chasse garde sa météorite! Ce fragment d’une taille de 4 cm a été récupéré lors de la mission au Chili.
  • Récolte de fragments de roches de geyser dans le désert d’Atacama au Chili en 2017 pour fins de comparaison avec des structures géologiques retrouvées sur Mars.
  • L’Observatoire du Pic du Midi de Bigorre dans les Hautes-Pyrénées, où Auriane a installé et entretenu des caméras d’observation des météores.
Researcher anecdotes: cosmic predictions

Auriane Egal is an astrophysicist and researcher at the Planétarium. It sometimes happens that people confuse her area of expertise with astrology, but her work has nothing to do with horoscopes. Auriane nevertheless does make cosmic predictions. Like the character played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film Don’t Look Up, Auriane calculates the probabilities of meteoroid shower visits thanks to a digital model that she’s developed. Her predictions make it possible to limit the risks of meteoroids colliding with spacecraft, satellites, telescopes, and above all, the astronauts living in the International Space Station.

Sphere of influence

Auriane’s research has repercussions well beyond that world. In 2018, thanks to her predictions, the European Space Agency interrupted and reoriented the course of the Gaia probe in order to protect it from a meteor storm: the Draconids.

Her work in other words helps prevent damage arising from collisions with meteoroids that may well disrupt the functioning of equipment in space (the Space Station’s habitable module, fuel tank, rocket motor, electronic panel, and so on). For an astronaut, this is a matter of life and death, because impact with a meteoroid is fatal.

Since Auriane’s model is more reliable than competing models in most contexts, it’s also the one most put to use. Thus, her work is used as a reference when decisions are made by NASA’s department of space mission safety.* The decision to prevent crew members from taking space walks or to stop the operation of a satellite is not without consequences. The stoppage, even temporary, of the work of an astronaut or apparatus involves the loss of time, data collected, and money.

The sphere of influence of Auriane’s work is broad, an influence she wasn’t really aware of before her supervisor shone a light on it: “Your predictions are not only used by NASA, but they’re useful to all the other space agencies in the world. No pressure, right?”

Recently, Auriane has been officially part of the world’s largest meteor research team – the Western Meteor Physics Group at Western University – as assistant professor. The arrival of the Andromedids meteor shower, expected in December, is keeping her busy.

Perseverance – like the rover

Between two accounts of what can be described as professional exploits, Auriane shared her career path with me and some of its the most adventurous moments.

For example, when she was studying for her doctorate, her team discovered that old debris from one of the Apollo missions, dubbed WT1190F, would be entering the Earth’s atmosphere over Sri Lanka in 10 days. Seeing the phenomenon as a rare opportunity for her to test her cameras, her data processing and her trajectory calculations, Auriane decided to fly to Sri Lanka in the company of her colleague Min-Kyung Kwon.

“We had to overcome a number of obstacles: meeting people onsite to help and host us, finding an energy source, watching out for spiders, snakes and primates – and everything in unlikely conditions. There was a monsoon, I got an electric shock from a cable, I couldn’t raise my arms for days, I had to contend with journalists piling up under the makeshift canvas of my facility. One of them disturbed the setting on a camera and I had to start the calibration over, which takes 24 hours, and there’s me without sleep for 36 hours…”

Following all this drama, the data of Auriane and her colleague literally fell into the water, because the rain coming down at the moment the object fell made observation impossible. “We were ready! No one had managed to do this before us.” After all, astronomers often depend on the weather.

Thanks to the welcome and the involvement of the local community, their mission was a success all the same: it’s been cited as an example of international collaboration and recognized by the scientific community and the European Space Agency. The meeting between Auriane and her colleague and professors from the University College of Matara proved so inspiring that the latter set up a meteor observation program and a department of astronomy in Sri Lanka. The links developed between Auriane and the Sri Lankan teams are still alive and strong today.

That unforgettable experience occupies top spot on the researcher`s hit parade of very special moments, though neck and neck with the designation of an asteroid named 99851 Egal in honor of her scientific contribution. “It measures 7.66 kilometers in diameter for a relatively unknown weight and it spends the bulk of its days looking at us between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.” She adds, “Because it’s timid, I still don’t have any photos of it, but it’s really cool.”

In a galaxy near us

Closer to home, Auriane pilots the DOMe project, the Québec component of the detection and observation program for meteorites that fall to the ground in the province. She also coordinates the international component of the consortium pursuing the same goals elsewhere in the world under the name FRIPON.

“Today I joke that I do nearby astronomy,” the scientist tells me, laughing.

*OSMA – Office of Safety and Mission Assurance / NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO)

Going a step further:

Every year in November, Space for Life presents Researchers’ Night, a unique event that celebrates research and makes it accessible to everyone.

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