From Cubesats to Mars: Space Health with no Limits

Posted on February 9, 2021

A Guest Blog by Donya Naz Divsalar

Donya is a Master of Sciences student at the Aerospace Physiology Laboratory at Simon Fraser University. In the summer of 2020, Donya worked with Mission Control under a Mitacs internship to help design a variant of our Mission Control Software platform for medical applications in spaceflight. Read about her experience below.

As a kid, I read many books and watched lots of sci-fi shows about travelling and choosing a habitat in outer space or on another planet’s surface. The technology, the fascinating descriptions and shots of outer space, and the struggles the main character would come across during their travel, all added so much excitement to the already exciting idea the story revolved around: space travel.

I grew up in a country where choosing a career in aerospace was not an option for women. Before I moved to Canada, I wasn’t even sure I would ever have a chance to pursue a career in anything space-related. As a scientist trained in medical fields, I pursued an undergraduate degree in epidemiology of infectious diseases. After working with some awesome student groups at SFU who build CubeSats, founding SFU Aerospace, and writing multiple papers on astronaut health, I was more curious than ever about designing and building medical payloads for small satellites. Three years later, and now I’m finishing up a Master’s degree in aerospace physiology, a truly “out of this world” journey if you ask me!

The ALEASAT Cubesat. Credit: UBC / SFU

My Master’s degree took me through many amazing opportunities, especially many national and international conferences. During one of these conferences, I was connected with the Mission Control team and learnt about their super exciting rover technology. The Mission Control team wanted to get more involved in space health and that was exactly what I was and am working on, so we decided to embark on a collaboration through Mitacs Accelerate Fellowship; a coast-to-coast collaboration filled with new experiences that truly brought people from two very different backgrounds together. After all, that’s the beauty of working in aerospace fields; there are really no boundaries to how much you can learn!

Though I didn’t get to travel to Ottawa because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and despite working remotely, I ended up learning so much more than I had envisioned. I learnt how to do my first design requirements document, test planning, and mission development, all of which are extremely useful in aerospace careers. Aerospace physiology is typically considered a very niche area, but despite that I was learning the skills applicable to practically any technical or scientific job. As graduate students, we sometimes tend to get isolated in research and thesis work, deal with data for days on end, and lose touch with the industry. Working with Mission Control team really opened my eyes to what possible career options I would have post-graduation, and how I can contribute to the Canadian space science by working on awesome space projects. Most importantly, I got to work with very intelligent and cool team members who always supported me and had my back, especially when I was just starting to learn the new skills.

Doing a project-based internship can be intimidating, especially if you’ve only worked in research fields prior to that, but I think that’s what every scientist needs to get involved with to gain further understanding of their field. If you are considering doing an internship in your graduate studies, especially in aerospace, I highly recommend doing so. Our space industry is more multidisciplinary than ever, and there is a need for people from all disciplines to come together and work on humankind’s next journey in space. For the past three years, I have actively worked on creating a multidisciplinary environment for all SFU students to work on aerospace projects, and I would like to thank the Mission Control team for letting me take a big step towards that goal. Aerospace for all!


Donya obtained her BSc. Honours degree from Simon Fraser University in Health Sciences in 2019 and is currently a Master of Sciences student with Aerospace Physiology Laboratory at SFU. Her undergraduate honours thesis focused on the effects of cosmic radiation on reversal of HIV latency using a CubeSat payload. She is the founder of SFU Aerospace; the second student-run aerospace organization in Canada, and also a winner of 2019 Surrey Board of Trade Top 25 under 25. Besides working on her thesis, Donya spends her time as the science lead of SFU Satellite Design team to bring science and CubeSat technology together by designing unique biological and medical payloads.

Through her graduate studies, Donya focuses on the effects of microgravity on physiological responses in human body. She is studying bedrest as an analog for space to assess physiological deconditioning in astronauts, and centrifugation as a countermeasure for reversing the adverse effects of spaceflight on human body. She is also working with engineering students at SFU on developing biotechnological and biomedical advancements that aim to mitigate the negative physiological effects of long-term space travel.

Follow Donya on Instagram to stay up to date on her future work.

Mission Control Software for Space Health Applications

Posted on October 13, 2020

The ALEASAT cubesat. Credit: SFU Satellite Design / UBC Orbit

Mission Control is thrilled to adapt its Mission Control Software (MCS) technology to a space health and life sciences application. The novel activity to design and develop a prototype real-time medical data transfer system for space health applications is being conducted in partnership with Simon Fraser University (SFU) Aerospace Physiology Laboratory (APL).

The SFU APL, a world-renowned international leader in spaceflight health research, conducts investigations into the negative effects of spaceflight on human physiology including deconditioning in the cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, skeletal and neuromuscular systems.

In collaboration with members of SFU Aerospace, SFU APL is presently developing a Short-Arm Human Centrifuge (SAHC) to counter these issues. The production of artificial gravity through short-arm centrifugation may potentially provide a counter to the microgravity-induced fluid shift experienced through extended spaceflight in combination with exercise.

In partnership with SFU APL and SFU Satellite Design Team, Mission Control will design and develop MCS-APL, an operations system that provides user interfaces to operate one of the payloads of ALEASAT; a 1U CubeSat developed as a joint project between SFU Satellite Design Team and UBC Orbit. This payload uses a customized reaction wheel made by SFU undergraduate Mechatronic Systems Engineering students as a scale model of the SAHC being developed by SFU APL on the ground. MCS-APL will enable SFU APL to visualise SAHC data and apply control parameters and mission operations teams to interface with ALEASAT payload operations.

MCS is a mission operations suite of software services that allows users around the world to monitor and command remote assets using a cloud-based server. MCS was originally designed as a distributed ground-based software framework to enable the operation of payloads and rovers, using advanced algorithms independent of the flight system’s processing capabilities. MCS has been developed and tested in dozens of analogue rover missions led by Mission Control. This system has been sold commercially and used in hundreds of hours of remote robotic mission operations since 2016, including for CSA and NASA funded lunar and Mars analogue missions and dozens of education and public outreach activities through our Mission Control Academy.

Together, Mission Control, APL, and the SFU Satellite Design Team, will consider industry standards and protocols to design an interface platform and operational protocol that will be used to transmit and validate simulated health data from orbital and ground-based systems to researchers at remote locations.

In the long term, this project will provide a reliable protected health-data transfer user interface system for satellite and ground-based facilities. It will facilitate live physiological data transmission from the centrifuge prototype to ground stations around Canada. The project will help to enable remote experiment and data collection management across Canada and the world, such that sensitive medical information obtained during SAHC and other experiments such as BP, ECG, and EMG can be accessed in real-time by the researcher at any location. The project is key due to significance of patient medical information privacy and challenges in remote real-time medically confidential data transfer. This Mitacs-supported project will help Mission Control and SFU APL to tackle these challenges by designing a unique protocol for medical information transfer that is aligned with patient information privacy and achieves the goal of real-time data transfer in a national and international scope, acting as a stepping stone for space health missions, with benefits at home for tele-medicine and remote communities.