Headed for space: UNSW’s Olivia Widjaja striving to tackle the space junk problem


Picture: Olivia Widjaja

There’s an episode on the American sitcom The Large Bang Concept the place the primary characters are gathered on the roof of an condominium constructing to carry out a lunar laser experiment.

Watching that episode on the time, Olivia Widjaja by no means imagined she would in the future find yourself doing one thing comparable, besides she did throughout her 4 month internship as an preliminary orbit dedication engineer at Electro Optic Programs (EOS).

“What [EOS] mainly do is when they detect space debris that’s about to collide with another piece of debris, they use high-range lasers in Mount Stromlo [Observatory in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory] to nudge it out of its pathway to prevent collision and more debris,” she instructed ZDNet.

“What I did was use different numerical methods to predict various possible ways that debris can travel and improve the algorithm by lowering its error as much as possible, so then we can hopefully run it in real-time and use it with other tools, such as vibration lasers.”

Watching The Large Bang Concept as youngster was the place the curiosity in science and area began for Widjaja, who’s now a fourth-year aerospace engineering pupil on the College of New South Wales.

“They used a lot of science jokes and I wanted to understand them and that’s where I learned a lot of the things myself,” she stated.

Regardless of her curiosity, the help throughout college life to enter the sphere couldn’t have been farther from useful.  

“I was a little bit frustrated when I was in primary school because my primary school didn’t have any STEM classes. They had maths, but they didn’t have science, so I was teaching myself. I remember stealing my sister’s science textbooks just to read it,” she stated.

She defined the way it worsened throughout highschool the place she attended an impartial women’ college and had to decide on two electives to check in yr 9 and 10 — and that her elective selections have been whittled down involuntarily as a result of precedence was handed to college students on the brother college.

“That year was the first time the brother school was offering new electives — it was woodwork and engineering. Of course, I was excited and thought I wanted to do engineering; that was my first preference … [but] I remember being pulled aside by the vice principle — as well as with a few other girls who put engineering as an elective — and got told that all the boys took the spots, so we had to choose different electives,” Widjaja stated.

“I was a bit annoyed at the time, so I swapped it out for commerce but in retrospective, I should’ve kicked up a fuss about it.”

See additionally: Honoring Girls’s Historical past Month in tech

Widjaja continued to face sexism first-hand when she began college.

“A particular example in my head was in first-year during O-week, I was asking a male student a bunch of questions about uni life, and when it came to the topic on my HSC results and how I did better in my humanities subjects that maths and physics, he recommended me to ‘really consider if engineering is what I want to do’, especially if I find myself failing in first year,” she stated.

Whereas she admitted to failing a “bunch of courses” throughout her first yr of college, Widjaja accredited her dedication to persevere.  

“I was stubborn enough to stay in my degree, secured myself some work with EOS, and am close to graduating,” she stated.

As to the place she hopes to her profession will land after commencement, Widjaja is assured it will likely be in area sustainability, an space she hopes to boost extra consciousness about.

“It’s been an issue since the ’60s and it’s just got worse and worse,” she stated.

“The unfortunate thing is that space debris wasn’t really in the news until last year when a piece of debris was going to hit the International Space Station. Only when something bad happens do people realise that’s a thing.”

She believes a part of the answer is healthier regulation and coordination.

“There are so many satellites being launched. A lot of them is a good thing – we need internet communications, and we need it to monitor the environment. At the same time, there are so many dead satellites up there that’s floating around,” Widjaja stated.

“We kind of forget about it because the media is always like, ‘Oh, this company is launching this amount of satellites’, which sounds great but realistically how can we promote quality over quantity in the field of sustainability, and how can we better collaborate and share each other’s data so that we’re not constantly launching independent satellites and increasing the congestion up there.”

Learn: NASA desires to transform waste into area gold

Along with wanting to assist remedy the area junk downside, Widjaja additionally hopes to change into a task mannequin for different girls who wish to enter the sphere. She has began mentoring first-year UNSW engineering college students and can be a mentee herself as a part of the Western Sydney Girls’s community.

“I think that we need to promote the idea that women shouldn’t have to work to ‘blend in’ and be like ‘one of the boys’ just because we study and work in a male-dominated industry,” she stated.

“We shouldn’t feel ashamed for enjoying ‘traditionally feminine’ activities such as being into fashion and makeup and force ourselves to adopt ‘traditionally masculine’ hobbies, such as playing video games and building PCs. Of course, this can apply to men as well.  

“I feel that having distinctive pursuits and personalities is what permits us to deliver various opinions, particularly in an trade that strives for innovation.”


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