Canadian CubeSat Project teams make progress

Canadian CubeSat Project progress update. Credit: SEDS Canada.

Teams participating in the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadian CubeSat Project gave an update on their progress in a live streamed discussion on YouTube (Oct. 7), led by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) Canada.

The space agency selected 15 teams (including 37 participating organizations) to ready a CubeSat for launch to the International Space Station in 2021 or 2022 for eventual deployment. Each satellite will then perform a science mission that could last up to 12 months.

The students pointed to numerous opportunities and challenges as they get their CubeSats ready for spaceflight. CubeSats are a cheaper option to launch payloads into space due to their diminutive size, their standardized design and the cheaper off-the-shelf components that easily install on the body.

But with these advantages come design “trades” that entities all around the world must contend with as they launch these smaller satellites into space. CubeSats, just like any other space mission, require licences for launch, space on a rocket to make it into space, and tests to ensure the components are safe for launch into space. This all requires testing, paperwork and time.

Another common trade is accepting that individual components on CubeSats are not as robust due to their small size, namely electronics (which can more easily fry due to radiation) and cameras (which may not have the resolution of larger satellite viewers, although that is quickly changing as electronics become more sophisticated.)

But dealing with these design challenges will allow hundreds of Canadian students at the least to test out their ideas in the space environment, allowing real-life experience that will be useful for numerous fields. Ultimately, of course, the hope is that most of these students will end up in space working for Canadian entities or companies, deploying their knowledge for the next generation of satellites.

The teams each introduced their satellite concept and what they are hoping to learn from the experience.

“What our team is supposed to do is take VR [virtual reality] images that are essentially 360-degree images from space,” said Alexis Pascual, representing the Western University team. The goal is to deliver these images to the public at large so that “anyone would have access to the VR,” Pascual added.

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Pascual’s team, like most of the others, includes a diverse mix of students of different age groups, different institutions and different educational backgrounds. “Even if the students don’t end up working on space … they would have that experience of being able to design and build something that flew into space and that skill can be transferred to any other industry, wherever the student may go,” Pascual said.

The University of New Brunswick plans a dual-payload CubeSat to look at space weather and a layer of “air glow” in the uppermost part of the atmosphere, said Alex diTommaso, representing the University of New Brunswick team.

“We’re basically trying to investigate how the airglow layer evolves over time, which is dependent on gravity waves, local chemistry and atmospheric dynamics,” diTommasso said, acknowledging that running two experiments at once will “cause us some thermal problems down the road.”

Facing such challenges will be an excellent way to increase the capabilities of Canada’s engineering talent, diTommasso added. “I think this is a great opportunity to train the next generation of space professionals in Canada …I think we have a bright future ahead with CubeSats and space in general in Canada.”

The University of Victoria-led CubeSat will put a light source aboard the spacecraft, allowing for ground-based observatories to measure the light source from the ground. The brightness of the light source is also measured on board the spacecraft, said Levante Buzas from the University of Victoria.

“That way, the astronomers can back calibrate their measurements and get a better understanding about our universe,” he added. Luminosity measurements are commonly used for things such as measuring the expansion of the universe through “standard candle” supernovas that have a fixed luminosity, allowing for precise calculations of distance. The hope is this new CubeSat will allow astronomers to better understand distortions in luminosity due to the Earth’s atmosphere. 

The Aurora Research Institute of Aurora College’s satellite will focus on delivering art from space, said the institute’s Patrick Gall. “The goal is to have electronic artwork generated by participants … and we’ll demonstrate that artwork on a small screen that deploys in front of the satellite,” he said. The satellite will also send out messages to amateur radio operators around Canada to hear pre-recorded messages gathered by students or participants in the project. 

Aboard McMaster University’s CubeSat will be a scientific radiation detector, said the university’s Paula Bosca. The detector will be able to sense if individual particles are charged, or neutral. This will help in making it easier to measure the radiation dose that astronauts receive in space, as NASA and other agencies hope to run more long-term missions to the moon and Mars.

More information on the CubeSat project is available at the CSA website.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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