Helia Sharif

B.A.Sc. '10, 65th International Astronautical Congress speaker

Few people can say their first camping experience was on a remote island in the Canadian Arctic. But for SFU engineering science graduate Helia Sharif, pushing space exploration to its limits means also pushing herself to new limits.

“It usually takes people 20 minutes to set up their tents; it took me two and a half hours,” she laughs recalling her arrival to Devon Island, thought to be the largest uninhabited island on earth.

As an arctic field support engineer, Sharif lived and worked here during a month-long NASA-funded co-op placement. The island’s polar desert setting and harsh climate mimics environmental conditions on Mars and other planets, making it a go-to spot to test emerging space robotics technologies.

Sharif assisted with numerous projects ranging from field-testing space suits developed by renowned aerospace company Hamilton Sundstrand, to working with NASA’s K-10 rovers, dubbed as “lunar scouts” for human explorers.

“I was involved with working on a teleoperated mock surgery on a crewmate,” says Sharif, now a PhD candidate at the German Aerospace Center’s Space System Institute. “In remote environments like other planets, there may not be a medic available during an emergency situation. We can train the robotic systems on Earth to allow medical staff to perform surgeries from afar.”

A passionate fencer with a penchant for sky diving, Sharif relishes new challenges, whether it’s living amongst polar bears or speaking at a prestigious conference attended by a host of space exploration luminaries. In October 2014, Sharif was invited to speak at the 65th International Astronautical Congress in Toronto, hosted by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space.

Sharif, whose master’s thesis focused on overcoming space robotic challenges, talked about the potential for fully autonomous rovers to perform space missions with little or no human intervention.

Sharif describes her master’s project, developing rovers that not only take images of rock samples, but are also equipped with image-processing capabilities to extract and analyze rock textural information. “We study the rocks to look for traces of water,” says Sharif. “Water could lead to signs of life and could also help us better understand whether other planets in our solar system have had exposure to life. It could also indicate the likelihood that we, the humans, could colonize other planets.”

The rover prioritizes terrain with interesting features, automating the mundane stages of early classification, so that the crew and mission control can focus on performing other tasks during the mission.

The stars certainly aligned for Sharif when it came to combining her two passions: space and robotics, beginning with her undergraduate at SFU. Here, she worked on a gecko-inspired climbing robot for space applications, funded by the European Space Agency, with SFU engineering professor Carlo Menon and Dan Sameoto (then a post-doc student, now a professor at the University of Alberta).

The resulting research paper was published in two peer-reviewed journals – an outstanding achievement, particularly for an undergraduate student. She presented her findings at the 61st International Astronautical Congress held in Prague, on a full scholarship from the Canadian Space Agency.

At the heart of Sharif’s success is a ceaseless curiosity about how things work. A natural extension of this, she says, is a drive to explore other cultures and lands, both on Earth and beyond.

“Diving into a new culture and environment is a fun challenge; I love the adaptation process as I learn a new language and adjust to my new surroundings,” says Iran-born Sharif. In addition to the Arctic expedition, she has also completed a co-op placement in Germany, a semester at International Space University in Austria and an Internship in The Netherlands at the European Space Agency.

“Learning about the solar system – where we come from and what lies ahead for the future of our human race – is the ultimate exploration for me,” says Sharif. “It’s what motivates me to continue gaining expertise in my field and pushing boundaries.”