AlbertaSatellite1 team members Ian Mann, Chris Robson, Colin Cupido, Duncan Elliott and Carlos Lang with a model of the Ex-Alta #1 satellite.
Edmonton—A team of University of Alberta students is planning to launch the first made-in-Alberta satellite. And they’re using an innovative fundraising tool to make their dream come alive.
The AlbertaSatellite1 student group is turning to crowdfunding to raise the $60,000 launch fee to get their cube satellite, which measures 10 x 10 x 30 cm, into orbit as part of an international project early next year.
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The team is raising an initial fundraising goal of $30,000 to cover a down payment on launch costs and guarantee the team a spot in space history.
The satellite, called Ex-Alta #1, will be launched into orbit as part of an array of 50 cube satellites studying the Earth’s lower thermosphere, operating under the international QB50
Chris Robson, a fourth-year mechanical engineering co-op student who serves as project manager for the team, says he never dreamed his engineering education would involve something as monumental as this.
Robson is dedicating himself to the project full time for several months, completing one of his engineering co-op placements in his role as project manager. His job is to negotiate between the powers above and below in terms of deadlines and schedules and "making sure things get done."
“I direct people to do the design and work but at same time I have to be technically minded because I need to make the right decisions about what can and can’t be on the satellite, and my other job is to make sure the project gets money," he said.
"When I started school here I wanted to get into robotics and now I’m building a satellite. I couldn’t imagine that this would happen, even a year ago—we had five people in the group and now we have 60, and we have about 10 faculty members advising us. Our whole goal is multi-tiered but part of it is to get an aerospace industry started in Alberta and to get an aerospace program started at the U of A, and producing highly qualified personnel will help will help every industry.
Robson says students from engineering, science and arts belong to the group; about 40 of the students are from the Faculty of Engineering.
"Building a satellite requires a lot of technical work and a lot of documentation," he said, adding that the team is producing an educational package for new members to study, and that he is developing projects for team members to take on.
"There’s a lot of analysis that needs to be done because this has to be perfect. There is no room for error."
The student group, based in the Department of Physics’ Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology (ISSET) runs under the supervision of Ian Mann, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Space Physics, and several other professors, including mechanical engineering professor Carlos Lange and electrical and computer engineering professor Duncan Elliott.
Mann says the U of A satellite will gather data that could help protect valuable public infrastructure.
The QB-50 mission goal is to study part of the Earth’s atmosphere called the lower thermosphere, which is between 90 and 350 km above ground. But the U of A satellite will also monitor space weather, by examining the Earth’s magnetic field. The satellite will use a device called a magnetometer to look for disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, like waiting to watch the wind blow leaves.
"Space weather is increasingly seen as a threat to infrastructure. Activity on the Sun unleashes storms of highly charged particles that can not only damage satellites in orbit but also wreak havoc with electrical power grid systems on the ground," said Mann. One such incident occurred in Quebec in March of 1989, and there is one recorded incident of a space storm in 1859 that damaged telegraph wires—even setting them on fire.
"What would happen if such an event occurred today? It could be very serious," said Mann, adding that a recent U.S. study pegged the potential damages of space storms at $2 trillion.
In July of 2012, Mann says, a large explosion on the Sun sent a burst of particles in the Earth’s direction "but luckily that bullet went whistling by. If we can study this phenomenon and understand how they occur we could forecast them and try to find ways to protect our infrastructure. Potentially, we could have very significant impacts."
Mann knows this is an opportunity not to be missed. "What a wonderful opportunity for the university and a great opportunity for the students, to be able to build, fly and operate a satellite."
Electrical engineering professor, Elliott, is advising the team members and is teaching a computer engineering capstone project course, in which three students have signed up for a project designing parts of AlbertaSat.
"The students get to work on a significant interdisciplinary project that spans departments and faculties," Elliott said of the project. "This is a great example of co-operative work. No one knows all about the design techniques required for every part so the teamwork is essential. It's an exciting project."
Mechanical engineering professor, Carlos Lange, has experience in designing devices for space travel. He conceived the "tell-tale" instrument that flew to Mars on NASA’s Phoenix Lander to monitor weather on the Red Planet.
Professors who advise student groups are making the same sacrifices with their time that the students do. And like the students, Lange says it’s an easy decision to make.
"We do the things we need to do because we like this type of work," he said. "I grade exams because it needs to be done but I work with students on projects like this because I love to, and the university environment gives us these opportunities. It isn’t my main job—but it is an important reason why I am at the university."