Faezeh Ebadollahi is an NSERC-CREATE ISM student working with Dr. Gordon Sarty’s lab. She was able to travel to Ottawa with the team to test their instrument with the help of an ISM CREATE travel grant.
Dr. Gordon Sarty and his team in the Space MRI Lab at University of Saskatchewan have been working on building prototypes of MRIs to be used in future space missions. For the past four years, with funding from a CSA FAST grant, they have been utilizing a specific method called TRASE (Transmit Array Spatial Encoding) to build an ankle-sized TRASE MRI named “Merlin”.
The Merlin MRI was finally ready to be tested in zero-gravity in April 2021! We all flew to Ottawa to test the MRI in a Falcon 20 jet at the NRC’s (National Research Council of Canada) Aerospace Research Centre. MRI experiments were conducted during two flights with an average of 16 parabolas per flight. The data acquisition was performed during the 20 seconds of zero-gravity experienced in each parabola. We were all extremely excited since this was a crucial milestone for the Merlin project and we were happy to see that the Merlin MRI worked exactly as expected! We are still working on improving the images from the Merlin, but during this mission we successfully demonstrated that our design is robust enough for space applications.
It was an amazing experience to be a part of the team and witness every step of the process closely. There were procedures for everything that had to be followed carefully. For instance, the Merlin MRI needed to pass an airworthiness review. In order to do that, Dr. Sarty had the Merlin delivered to the NRC Aerospace Research Centre in Ottawa one week before the main flights. Inside NRC’s hanger, fabricated aluminum safety straps were added to integrate the MRI magnet into its frame and aerospace certified fasteners were used to mount electronics boxes to ensure the safety of having the Merlin onboard the jet in an environment that varied from +2 g to 0 g.
During the first few days of our stay in Ottawa, we spent a lot of time inside the NRC’s hanger familiarizing ourselves with the Falcon 20 jet and the pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight procedures. We went over each member’s assigned tasks and discussed the routines (written down as check lists); such as the commands that needed to be given to the computer (which was also fixed in front of one of the jet seats), how to put the leg inside and out of the MRI safely (for safety issues the leg could not be inside the device during take-off and landing), and how to keep proper records of the collected data. Moreover, we set back-up plans in case some of the crew members were not feeling well due to the extreme conditions of the flight. We also had a ground check-out for the equipment where we reviewed our procedures to make sure that the Merlin MRI was working properly before the zero-gravity maneuvers.
Once the Merlin MRI was fully prepared to be flown, the NRC crew explained the flight protocols and the COVID-19 regulations such as how the zero-gravity maneuvers work and they gave us details about the communications through headsets – like what codes could possibly be used during the flights and their meanings. We were then given safety tips such as how trying not to look out of the window or keeping our heads straight could help prevent possible motion sicknesses.
Before each flight, the team including the pilots, the NRC members in-charge and the Space MRI lab squad had a briefing session. The flight agenda would be discussed and the team would go over the flight details including the number of parabolas, the altitude of the airplane and any other possibly significant information. And after each flight we would wrap everything up in a debriefing session.
This was quite a unique experience for us to observe a space-like mission get executed in real-life! Besides, we also got to explore a hanger full of fascinating airplanes!