The best way to get students excited about careers in space technology is through hands-on building experience. For the last 12 years, that’s been the logic driving the educational efforts of the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society (CSDCMS).
It is a registered Canadian charity that hosts space-themed competitions to advance knowledge and capability in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Management) for Canadian university/college and secondary school students.
“January 1st, 2011 was when we rolled out the first CubeSat Design Competition for university/college students,” says CSDCMS President Lawrence Reeves, whose 20-plus years in the Canadian space industry include projects such as the RADARSAT-2, Sapphire, and NEOSSat missions. “We then launched our CanSat Design Challenge for Secondary Schools in 2018. The team that wins that challenge represents Canada at the European Space Agency’s International CanSat Competition which is held each year in June, in Europe.”
The inspiration for the CSDCMS’ design competitions came from Reeves and a group of his space-minded friends many years ago. “We were discussing whether or not we could build our own little microsatellite in the garage like AMSAT (an American group of amateur radio operators) does,” he told SpaceQ. “We batted around different ideas and then at some point I just came up with, ‘well, why not make this a competition? It would be great to have teams from Canadian universities design and build their microsatellites’ – and that’s where CubeSat Design Competition came from.”
In the CubeSat Design Challenge, teams of Canadian university and college students design and build a 3U CubeSat, a fully-operational satellite about the size of a 2 litre carton of milk and no heavier than 4 kg. (The ‘U’ refers to a Unit of spacecraft volume, with 1U measuring 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm.) Theoretically, these CubeSats could be launched into orbit to conduct research missions and be controlled from the ground. Competing teams will conduct vibration-testing on their CubeSats at the end of May, with the winner to be chosen afterwards.
The CanSat Design Competition for high school students has two levels. “Teams in the Beginner Category build pop-can-sized satellites weighing 300-350g that can be launched to a height of up to 1 km or dropped from a helicopter — recording air pressure and temperature data every second to their onboard memories as they descend by parachute,” says Reeves. “In the Advanced category, this data is transmitted to the ground via radio.”
Although past winners of the CubeSat Design Competition have received a cash prize to help them build their own ground station, the CSDCMS’ goal of launching the winners into orbit remains elusive.
“We started off with the hope that anyone who was able to build a space worthy satellite would get it in orbit,” Reeves says. “Unfortunately, the cost of paying to do so on an actual rocket is prohibitive. So CubeSat has evolved into a very good educational development experience for university/college students, along with the prestige of winning the competition. Meanwhile, the CanSat high school team that wins gets to compete in Europe!”