Special Coverage

SEDS Canada selects student finalists for microgravity and balloon flights

File photo: NRC, SEDS Canada and CSA personnel with the Falcon 20 jet which will be used to perform the microgravity research. Credit: SEDS Canada.

Since space experiments are expensive, much of the testing for the final frontier takes place on airplanes simulating microgravity, or balloons that fly high in the stratosphere.

Several student teams have the chance to run science experiments in these fields thanks to a collaboration between Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)-Canada and the Canadian government.

“One of the big things [for SEDS] is inspiring the next generation of the Canadian space industry, people that will go on to guide the future of Canada in space,” said Kristen Cote, SEDS-Canada projects chair, in a SpaceQ interview. “That includes, obviously, post-secondary students, but a big thing we’re trying to do [in the future] is get high school students to go.”

The Canadian Reduced Experiment Design Challenge (RGX) will see four sets of post-secondary students submit their ideas for testing on board the National Research Council of Canada’s (NRC) Falcon 20 research aircraft. The finalists are uO Rocketry (University of Ottawa) to examine antibiotics in microgravity, Team Phi-Six (Thompson Rivers University) to look at the forces between salt particles in microgravity, UBC Rocketry (University of British Columbia) to learn about microbial fuel cell behaviour in various gravity environments, and UAlberta Space Design Group (UASDG) from the University of Alberta is investigating gene expression of bio-engineered cartilage tissue in microgravity for applications in both astronaut health and improvement of outcomes of knee osteoarthritis treatment on Earth.

“The importance of RGX is to get the students excited about this unique experience by guiding them through the whole engineering design cycle, and getting to interact with people from the Canadian Space agency and NRC,” Cote explained. Depending on availability of the Falcon 20, the competition may be based out of Calgary for the first time – but that is still to be determined. Cote is hoping that will happen given that three of the finalist teams are from western provinces of Canada.

The Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Experiment Design Challenge (SBX) invites students to fly a small scientific experiment on a balloon provided by the Canadian Space Agency. The finalists are Western U Balloon Team (University of Western Ontario) to examine ionizing radiation on organic compounds, and Team NEUDOSE-HAB (McMaster University) to detect high-energy charged and neutral particles in space.

“The big push behind this year’s competition is getting students involved with the organizational aspects,” Cote said. “Who do you need to call to set up a balloon flight, how do you get this to happen, what does the countdown look like, what things do we have to consider for the launch and tracking and recovery.”

About 250 students have participated in the two experiments (including this year’s iteration), with 200 of those participating in RGX since its foundation in 2017, and the remainder in SBX since its foundation in 2018. SEDS plans to continue expanding the reach of both competitions in 2021 and beyond, with more frequent competitions for SBX and recruiting Maritime provinces for RGX.

In the far future, SEDS may consider using a private company’s educational program to make their competitions more frequent, or larger. One example could be the program offered by Toronto’s Luna Design and Innovation Inc., a contractor for Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft. But this would be done at some point beyond 2021, Cote said.

Update: The story has been updated to include the University of Alberta as a finalist in the RGX Challenge.

About Elizabeth Howell

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.