Alberta's first satellite boldly goes to work

Ex-Alta 1 launch signals new era of space weather exploration.

At 2:55 a.m., Ex-Alta 1 was successfully deployed from the International Space Station in dramatic fashion. (Video courtesy NanoRacks, NASA)

Alberta's first satellite went into orbit early this morning, bringing the University of Alberta and the province into space for the first time.

Ex-Alta 1, the small cube satellite designed and built by U of A students, was deployed from the International Space Station (ISS) at 2:55 a.m. as members of the U of A AlbertaSat student team gathered at the U of A Observatory to watch a live webcast of the event.

Tale of the tape

Ex-Alta 1 is the largest satellite in the QB50 mission, measuring 30 x 10 x 10 cm and tilting the scales at 2.64 kg. It will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 415 km for up to 18 months before burning up during re-entry.

"I would not have missed this for the world," said Ian Mann, a physics professor whose research focuses on space weather. About 15 minutes after Ex-Alta 1 was deployed, Mann and the students stood at the observatory to watch the ISS fly overhead. Although not visible, Ex-Alta 1 was closely training the space station.

"It was after 3 a.m., the space station is in sunlight, we are in darkness and we see the glint of light off of its solar panels and we knew that in almost the same place was a satellite flying over the city of Edmonton-where it was built," said Mann. "It was a bit of an emotional moment."

For ground control team member Dustin Nault, the deployment means he and fellow mechanical engineering student Tyler Hrynyk will be working nights, communicating with the satellite as it passes overhead.

"We had a nice moment, but now the payoff work begins," Nault said.

The cube satellite, which is roughly the size of a shoe box, is part of an international cube satellite mission called QB50. Ex-Alta 1 will be working with 38 other satellites built at universities around the world in a mission to study the lower thermosphere and space weather-those powerful bursts of solar wind that represent a threat to trillions of dollars worth of electrical power and communications infrastructure here on Earth.

The satellite was expected to begin recording data on the magnetic field that surrounds it about 40 minutes after it was deployed. Four communication antennae were then to be released as well as probe needles, which will measure the density of plasma electrons.

If all goes according to plan, the satellite will begin recording data on the magnetic field that surrounds it about 40 minutes after it's deployed. Soon thereafter, four communication antennae will be released as well as probe needles, which will measure the density of of plasma electrons.

In theory, this chain of events will take 70 minutes and Ex-Alta 1 will begin transmitting a beacon on its own individual frequency. At 11:04 p.m. MST, 19 hours and nine minutes after entering orbit, Ex-Alta 1 will rise above the horizon low in the southwest. By this time, it is likely that the NORAD Joint Space Operations Center will have identified and registered Ex-Alta 1 in its catalogue of orbiting spacecraft and devices.

This video illustrates what should unfold after Ex-Alta 1 was deployed. (Video by Andy Kale)

From a control room in the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, mechanical engineering undergraduate students Tyler Hrynyk and Dustin Nault will lock onto Ex-Alta's signal and send a message inquiring about its status. The team will determine whether the power is on, if the voltages are right, and whether the components are communicating with one another.

"We'll listen for its beacon signal, verify that it's alive and verify its own telemetry so that we can track it," said Hrynyk.

Ex-Alta 1's four payloads

- A probe to study space weather, precisely measuring electron density- The Digital Fluxgate Magnetometer designed by UAlberta instrument engineer David Miles, that measures magnetic signatures in space weather- A radiation dosimeter, which routinely monitors radiation of the spacecraft- Athena: an open-source program, designed and built at the U of A, to run cube satellites. It is being field tested for use in future space missions

Getting to the point of even verifying Ex-Alta's signal could take a full week, and involve assistance from AlbertaSat's compatriots in the QB50 mission. Several of the teams have already deployed their satellites and some are having difficulty communicating with them-the AlbertaSat team said each university team will support others.

"We've met a lot of these people at conferences," said Hrynyk. "We're all friends. It's international collaboration."

Regardless of the time it takes to confirm that its systems are running properly, the next step-stabilizing the satellite-is important and time consuming. Ex-Alta 1's attitude determination and control system stabilizes the spacecraft using magnetorquers (leveraging magnetic forces), Sun sensors and Sun-Earth cameras, to help it understand its orientation, and a magnetometer to lock its spin into one axis. After that, a momentum wheel begins turning against the satellite's spin, eventually manoeuvring it into a stable orientation.