Date: July 20, 2010

Title: Spelling Her Way into Space


Podcaster: Elizabeth Howell

Organization: Pars3c —

Description: Canadian student Laura Newcombe, who is 11 years old, won a spelling bee after talking about the advanced laser system “TriDAR”. The firm that made TriDAR, Neptec, surprised Laura with a visit from STS-128 astronaut Kevin Ford to honour her achievement.

Bio: Elizabeth Howell is a Canadian space/science journalist with bylines in the Globe and Mail, CTV, Air & Space Smithsonian, The Space Review and other publications. She blogs daily about space at

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Ben Lillie.


An astronaut, a spelling bee champ and a magical device that works by reflection.
All three showing the power of instant decision.
11-year-old Laura Newcombe knows about quick thinking first hand. She won a Canadian national spelling bee two times in a row. This year, it was from spelling the word LIDAR.

Laura Newcombe: No, I didn’t know what a LIDAR was. It was just another word during the spelling bee.
Elizabeth Howell: How did you know how to spell it?
Laura Newcombe: Well, the definition was, ‘Some sort of detection and ranging device, like a radar.’ And it said it’s also using light. So I thought, hm, maybe it could be L-I-D-A-R sort of like radar, except L-I instead of R-A. So I spelt that, and that was right.

LIDAR is used in space to map how far apart a spacecraft and its target are. This is especially important when the space shuttle moseys up to the International Space Station to transport cargo – and the occasional person – to the station.
Canadian company Neptec is working on an advanced version of LIDAR that’s called TriDAR. When astronaut Kevin Ford came to Ottawa this week to talk about how TriDAR was used in space, Laura got a special invitation to come and see him.

Laura Newcombe: Well, they said an astronaut. I wasn’t sure who it was, but any astronaut is pretty fun.

Ford piloted the shuttle on the STS-128 mission in August 2009. His job depends on knowing exactly where the shuttle is in space.
TRIDAR was just on its first flight when Ford took the joystick to dock with the space station. It was only used to monitor his movements, but he said he was quite excited at the potential.

Kevin Ford: Since it was its first flight, we started it up we took the data, and we saved the data and all
that stuff for them in the end and brought it to them. But we didn’t actually use it for the rendezvous and docking on our flight. But I did see some results for it this morning, and it would have been beautiful to have it. I’m hoping in the future for rendezvous we will have that type of system; it’s very promising.

Neptec says TRIDAR will change the way docking is done. It’s difficult to see stuff in space because there are no reference marks in space. It’s hard to tell how big things are, or how far away they can be, when they’re floating in big blanket of nothing.
Past docking systems needed some kind of reflection to navigate by and judge distance, so the station is fitted with special reflectors just so the shuttle astronauts can figure out where it is in space.
But TRIDAR is different. It uses lasers to map out distance all on its own.
Stephane Ruel is Neptec’s lead designer on TRIDAR.

Stephane Ruel: It performed extremely well. We met all of our objectives, and even a little bit more than that. So as a result we got accepted for a second flight, and we flew on STS-131 as well, which was also successful. We improved the technology through some changes and made it even better.

And the technology is extendible. A few tweaks to the system, and it can be used to help helicopters land in dusty conditions. Or even get a rover going on Mars.

Stephane Ruel: We designed the system specifically for rendezvous and docking, but because it’s a generic 3-D camera it can be used for a number of different things, one of which is rover navigation. You know, we can track geometry with TriDAR so whether it’s geometry of the spacecraft or of the ground, we can use it for navigation. We’re actually applying it for rover prototypes here that can be used to navigate the rover. And there’s also other applications in landing. We’ve got a spinoff of TriDAR that’s meant for helicopters, pilots landing in dusty conditions, so that’s another direct spinoff of the technology.

It’s a handy system for the future. And Laura’s future is already set out for her, with two spelling-bee trophies underneath her belt.

I don’t lose marks over grammar or spelling mistakes. It’s also it’s also helped me learn how to focus and work hard on things, too.

For 365 Days of Astronomy, I’m Elizabeth Howell.

End of podcast:

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