Nidia Gallego, the Colombian who created a key piece of perseverance – science – life


Mission success perseverance, Which NASA is already traveling to Mars in search of signs of ancient or current life on the red planet, has once again sparked the world’s interest in space exploration. In memory of hundreds of thousands of people who watched the live broadcast of the landing on February 18, moving images were captured of the scene that occurred hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth.

According to ongoing reports by NASA, About a month after the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the mission proceeds normally, with all its tools and parts working properly. Proof of that The stunning images, audio recordings and videos captured by the Perseverance SUV And that flooded the media of the world.

What few know is that behind the proper performance of perseverance is the talent of Colombian Nidia Gallego, who has produced an important piece to protect the ship’s plutonium nuclear fuel, the energetic core that enables every part and tool of the sophisticated apparatus to have the electricity needed to operate. Furthermore , Gallego’s work is essential to prevent the release of radioactive materials in the unlikely scenario of an accident during mission launch.

Gallego is a materials scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), located in Tennessee dedicated to producing technologies and materials for power generation. Clients of the lab include many private companies and government agencies, such as NASA. From there, Gallego co-developed the Carbon Fiber-based Composite Material (CBCF, in English), a protective shield covering the Perseverance plutonium core.

He was born in Cali, 50 years ago, Galicia He studied industrial engineering at the University of Del Valle. After graduation, once the English was “illogical,” as she herself admits, she traveled to the United States to obtain her MA and PhD degrees in materials science at Clemson University in South Carolina. Although her initial plan was to return to Colombia, Gallego met who would become her husband and decided to stay in the United States.

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The scientist says she grew up in a low-income family: her parents, Gustavo Gallego and Alicia Roberto, were barely able to go to high school, but they managed to get their six children to go to college. During her career at Univalle, Nidia was forced to work as an observer for various classes in order to pay for her studies.

“I was fortunate to find great mentors who mentored me and feel very grateful with them; among them are Professor Ruby Mejia de Gutierrez and Professor Silvio Delvasto, who supported me and tied me to the University of Clemson, where they accepted me to advance in my graduate studies, then I got the job in the lab,” says Gallego, who He has spent the past 20 years researching and developing carbon-based materials such as foams, sorbents, insulators, and graphite for nuclear reactors, such as the CBCF onboard the Perseverance Plane.

Efficiency and safety

According to NASA, there are several ways to operate spacecraft. One of the sources most used by space agencies is solar panels. The problem is that these depend on the ability to receive radiation directly from the sun, which varies greatly depending on factors such as the distance from the star, the direction of the plates, the time of day and the latitude of the planet it is on. The action falls on the ship. On a planet like Mars, as sandstorms continue, dust may blanket the sheets and render them useless.

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Therefore, the need for stable and reliable power sources, such as those provided by radioactive elements, such as plutonium. These types of generators are known as Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) and have been used by NASA on various space missions for more than half a century. From the 1960s Transit IV A missions, through the Apollo missions that visited the moon, to recent missions, such as Spirit and Curiosity Rovers, the ancestors of perseverance.

Photo of footprints left by perseverance on Mars.

They work by taking advantage of the decay of radioactive elements such as plutonium, as is the case with perseverance, which carries it in its isotope form 238, “says Gallego.

The scientist notes that during the decomposition of radioactive elements, heat is released that can be used to generate electricity. It is a process that can last for several decades, which is why it is the perfect alternative to ensuring mission independence as perseverance for many years.

“If you persevere, 32 plutonium nuclei are protected within an equal number of iridium containers. It is one of the most resilient and resilient materials on Earth, and is able to contain plutonium in the event of an explosion, which could lead to a nuclear disaster accident,” Gallego explains.

He continues: “For iridium to function properly, it must remain at a high temperature of over 800 ° C. This is where the CBCF plays, which performs a dual function: it directs heat toward the generator and prevents it from dispersing where it should not, while preserving On cutting at the optimum temperature, “says Gallego.

Gallego says she is proud to contribute her sand grains to space explorationThe thing that seemed to be just a dream in the 1970s and 1980s, while growing up in Cali: “These tasks are like big puzzles, with thousands of people putting together a token. It’s a pleasure to see how the smallest thing can have a massive impact,” she admits, excited.

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“With this work I can say I’m doing something that NASA uses and this is in space. When I was little,” nerditos “thought it would be awesome to be an astronaut, and that, to me, is the closest thing to being,” says Gallego, who He’s already working from his lab producing materials that will be used by spacecraft for future missions, such as the Europa Clipper – also from NASA – that will travel to Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2024.

Nicholas Bustamante Hernandez
Twitter: @ NicolasB23
[email protected]

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