CanSat Challenge Has Students Designing and Building Can-Sized Satellites

Larry Reeves and competitors with a CanSat satellite. Image credit: Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society.

The Canadian CanSat Design Challenge (CCSDC) recently finished the 2023-2024 launch campaign. The four-day event near Lethbridge, Alberta, was an opportunity for high school students to build tiny simulated satellites the size of a pop can, with an eye to developing an interest in space and a better understanding of the skills and requirements involved in satellites.

The event is run by the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society (CSDCMS) and SpaceQ spoke on the event via email exchange with CSDCMS President Lawrence Reeves. Reeves is a Canadian space industry veteran running his company Geocentrix Technologies and previously worked at MDA Space on RADARSAT-2. He’s also the manager of the Canadian CanSat challenge. 

CanSat competitions have been around since 1989, taking place in the United States and across a number of different European countries. The name “CanSat” refers to actual pop cans, as the simulated satellites that competitors build are “integrated within the volume and shape of a regular soft drink can” as described by the European Space Agency (ESA). Competitors are required to fit all the major components of a satellite (like power and communications) into that small space, as well as at least one scientific payload. 

After the CanSats are complete, they’re carried up into the sky, released into freefall, and are required to perform a scientific experiment and land safely. 

Reeves said that a major inspiration for the challenge came from their somewhat-related CubeSat design challenge. He said that “one key element of the CubeSat challenge was the educational outreach, for which the teams were required to give presentations to elementary and secondary school students.” When he heard about how a Canadian high school was planning on getting involved in an ESA CanSat event in 2020, he realized that building CanSats would be an excellent way to engage high scool students. 

While the ESA event was canceled due to the pandemic, Reeves ran a trial event in late 2020 with a small number of Canadian schools, and it generated real interest. CSDCMS has run the yearly CanSat event ever since. 

Beginner and Advanced Levels

With the CanSat Design Challenge, all of the teams work within the same weight and volume restrictions, and need to integrate a scientific experiment that measures air temperature and pressure once per second until the CanSat reaches the ground, as well as a secondary experiment chosen by the students.

Beyond that, however, there are two different levels that students can choose between: beginner and advanced.

The beginner level is, Reeves said, “intended for students with little to no prior technical experience.” Reeves and his team creates and sends them a kit with everything they need, barring the can and the battery, and are pointed to a series of YouTube tutorials that “guide them step-by-step through the assembly process.” This includes some programming, soldering, and assembly tasks for the various components, as well as integrating the experiments. Components for a secondary experiment are also provided, though students are welcome to include their own experiments if they wish.

After completion, the students mail the CanSats to Reeves, who takes them up on a drone, drops them, emails the data that the CanSats captured, and sends back the CanSats to the students. The drone drop of beginner-level CanSats, Reeves said, will be happening in the first week of June. 

Advanced teams’ CanSat projects are more involved. They’re required to create a design report, and while a basic CanSat kit can be provided, it’s expected that the team has more experience and the ability to design and build the CanSat by themselves. They’re required to design and add their second experiment—part of the design report is detailing the experiment they’ll be doing—and to add telemetry for transmitting data to the ground. Because of all this added complexity, advanced teams also attend the event in person, and need to arrange for funding and transportation to the event.

In turn, however, advanced teams’ CanSats aren’t carried up by a drone, but are launched by high-powered rockets to a height of 1km or more, weather permitting. Reeves said that they have “an outstanding relationship with rocket clubs in both Calgary and Lethbridge, who have launched them at their range.” 

Reeves said that their organization has also had extensive financial and in-kind support from the Canadian Space Agency, as well as assistance from MDA, Microsat Systems Canada, Boeing, Magellan, L3Harris, TRIUMF, EarthDaily, and Telesat among others.

Preparing for launch. Image credit: Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society.

This Years Event

This year, 18 advanced teams signed up, though Reeves said that “many of them were unable to attend, mostly for financial reasons.” The four teams that attended each gave a 30-minute presentation on their missions, followed by a Q&A session with the CanSat review panel, and then with weighing/measuring the CanSats to ensure they’re within specifications

While weather can be an issue, CSDCMS’ release said that the teams enjoyed a sunny and warm day, with light enough winds that the CanSats didn’t drift too far from the expected landing point. The biggest “weather” issue may not have been a local storm, but the solar flare that caused auroras across much of Canada earlier this month; teams had trouble getting GPS positions, and Reeves speculated that the “remnants of the solar flare” might have had an effect. The release also mentioned that there were issues with CanSats breaking away from their parachutes, and said it is “perhaps a stress fracture artifact” of a 3D printed component. 

The release said that “top honors” went to Vancouver’s Eric Hamber Secondary School, whose mission was to “collect and test a soil sample for the presence of amino acids.” Reeves said that they had been impressed by the team adding deployable landing legs and a drill to the tiny CanSat, which would have allowed it to land and take a sample; while the experiment wasn’t completed, he said it was “a great indication of the incredibly creative mission ideas which the teams come up with.” In June, the team will be going to a workshop at the ESA’s ESTEC spacecraft center in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

Winners: Eric Hamber Secondary School. Image credit: Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society.

Other teams who received recognition include Britannia Secondary School from Vancouver, which won an “Educational Outreach Award” sponsored by the Canadian Space Society, and Ideal Mini School (also from Vancouver) who were awarded the “Team Perseverance Award” by the CSDCMS. 

Team Swordfish from Bayview Secondary School in Richmond Hill, Ontario, won the “Technical Achievement Award” and “Best Science Mission Award,” sponsored by Telesat and EarthDaily Analytics respectively, for their Terrain Relative Navigation mission intended to help spacecraft achieve safer landings. Reeves explained that the experiment used live camera images and a reference map to derive the landers’ current position.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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