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TechDemoSat-1’s LUCID: a novel cosmic ray detector built by students

TechDemoSat-1, the UK technology demonstration mission that will function as an in-orbit test facility for exciting new British technologies, is due to launch later this year.

One of the eight innovative payloads that will fly on-board the satellite is LUCID (The Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector), a monitor developed to measure the subtler aspects of space radiation: the energy, type, intensity and directionality of high energy particles. LUCID was developed by the Langton Star Centre which is part of the Simon Langton Grammar School with help from Dave Cooke and Sahand Ghanoun from SSTL, Professor Larry Pinsky from the University of Houston and NASA and Dr Tom Whyntie from STFC.

We spoke to Matt Harrison, Year 12 student and Project Manager for the LUCID project, to find out more…

What will LUCID enable us to do?

"Traditional particle detectors (such as Geiger counters) just click when they detect radiation. Using Timepix silicon pixel detectors, LUCID is able to act a bit like a digital camera in that it lets us take a three-dimensional picture of the particles passing through it at any one time. This will allow us to have a very detailed look at the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) environment; to an extent we believe no one has done before.

We also intend to investigate phenomena such as the South Atlantic Anomaly (a region in space where the Van-Allen Belts bend inwards), which is infamous for causing damage to satellites, look at the composition of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and cosmic rays and perhaps even determine the source of extra-galactic cosmic rays."

Where did the idea for LUCID come from?

"Our students decided to enter a competition, the brainchild of SSTL’s Dr Stuart Eves, to get an experiment sent into space. On a trip to CERN,  students visited the laboratories of the Medipix collaboration and it occurred to them that the Timepix detector chips that they had seen there could measure cosmic radiation in a very precise way.

Medipix were very happy for us to enter an experiment based on their technology because – surprisingly – the Timepix detectors had not yet been considered for use in space.  Unfortunately, as the equipment was not space qualified, the projected costs came in above the budget limits of the competition.  As a result, we didn’t win – but we were told that if we could raise a further £60,000 in funding we could still fly.  Thanks to the tremendous efforts of Dr Becky Parker, Director of the Langton Star Centre, we quickly raised this money and SSTL agreed that we could go ahead with making LUCID a reality."

What are Timepix chips and how do they work?

"The Timepix chip is a hybrid silicon pixel detector developed by the Medipix Collaboration at CERN for use in particle physics experiments and medical applications - especially x-ray imaging. The nice thing about the Timepix chips is that they can measure the position, time and energy deposited in the silicon sensors. The active area is only about 2 cm squared, but each of the 65,536 pixels essentially acts as its own particle detector, recording the energy deposited on it. The really useful thing about this is that when different types of radiation hit it, different shapes are made in the readout as the incident particle moves through the sensor and hits different pixels. Muons, for example, leave a very long straight line across the chip, whereas alpha particles leave a large circular cluster of active pixels. This ability to identify particles is what makes LUCID such a powerful piece of equipment."

What have the pupils at Simon Langton Grammar School (and other UK schools) been working on?

"Currently the students are gearing up to receive and analyse data from the LUCID payload: running particle simulations on software packages produced by CERN, reading up on the LEO environment, and writing the software to process and interpret the LUCID data.

The LUCID team with Professor Larry Pinsky, NASA dosimetry expert, Dr Tom Whyntie from the STFC, and SSTL's David Cooke and Sahand Ghanoun
The LUCID experiment is part of a wider project called CERN@school, a programme that aims to bring the excitement of CERN into the classroom, and encourage the futue generation of scientists. CERN@school covers the effort to get individual Timepix chips into schools for educational and research purposes.  We’ve started a number of different activities, the most recent of which is Radiation Around You (RAY)¬ a project to build up a radiation map of South East England. We’re into the final of the Rolls-Royce Science Prize with the RAY pilot programme, so watch this space!"

Would the project have been possible without TechDemoSat-1?

"Absolutely not! TechDemoSat-1 is perfect for testing out the LUCID experiment. While NASA recently put a few Timepix chips on the International Space Station, they have never been in open space and so we’ll all be very interested to see what we can measure.  It will also be immensely useful to collaborate with the other cosmic ray payloads on TechDemoSat-1 to independently verify each other’s measurements – something that runs at the heart of good scientific practice. We’re incredibly grateful to SSTL, for providing this fantastic opportunity for school students around the country to get the first look at scientific data from a cutting-edge space-based particle physics experiment. We can’t wait for the launch!"

The TechDemoSat-1 team
Becky Parker, who leads the LUCID project for the school says "I’d like to thank Dr Tom Whyntie the STFC Researcher on the LUCID project who is the key person responsible for getting the data in a format that can be accessible to other schools on the web and David Cooke of SSTL has been a truly phenomenal engineer on LUCID – he has worked so very hard to make LUCID work and be brilliant - it is his triumph as much as ours." 





14 February 20130 Comments1 Comment

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