Satellite launch marks new milestone for made-in-Alberta space science

Second cube satellite built by student-led team will help scientists monitor wildfires on Earth.

Ex-Alta 2, a small “cubesat” that will allow scientists to observe wildfires from orbit, was designed and built by a U of A student team as part of a mission launched today from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Ex-Alta 2, a small “cubesat” that will allow scientists to observe wildfires from orbit, was designed and built by a U of A student team as part of a mission launched today from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Photo: AlbertaSat/NASA)

In the world of space science, all eyes were on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today for the launch of a rocket carrying three cube satellites made by U of A students and their partners at Yukon University and Aurora College.

One of the satellites, called Ex-Alta 2, is entirely designed and built by U of A students — their second time accomplishing the feat. It will capture images of forest fires on Earth, information crucial to fighting their spread.

Watching the launch with some trepidation was engineering student Joanne Cai, systems lead on Ex-Alta 2 responsible for making sure its subsystems — including computer, battery pack, radio and camera — all work together.

“I definitely didn’t think I would be able to build a satellite during my university degree,” says Cai, a third-year student in mechanical engineering. Today that dream became a reality for her and dozens of other interdisciplinary team members.

A cubesat is a miniature satellite about the size of a breadbox and weighing no more than two kilograms. Hitching a ride with a resupply mission to the International Space Station, AlbertaSat’s cubesat will eventually be ejected into space by the station’s astronauts to begin its mission, inspired by the Fort McMurray wildfires of 2016.

“It’s great that we’re able to work on the climate-change front, because it’s obviously becoming more and more of an issue, especially for us as university students,” says Cai.

Once in space, the satellite’s multispectral imager called “Iris” — a camera-like instrument designed for the purpose by the students — will capture spectral data in visible and invisible (infrared) light on ground vegetation and the atmosphere, allowing scientists to make observations about wildfires.

Building on success in space

The launch of Ex-Alta 2 — part of the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadian CubeSat Project — follows the enormous success of Ex-Alta 1 in 2017. After winning first place in a design competition, a small group of U of A students, guided by a team of faculty advisers across disciplines in science and engineering, decided they wanted to challenge themselves beyond design and commit to sending the real thing into space.

They joined a large international project called QB50, and their resulting cube satellite stunned the world of space science by completing its mission with all systems working. 

Its payload took measurements of space storms involving high-energy particles in Earth’s magnetic fields. The resulting data help to better understand economic and infrastructure threats on the ground, especially damage to electricity power grids, says U of A space physicist Ian Mann, a faculty adviser on Ex-Alta 1.

“Think about what happens when we lose power for a matter of hours — if you extend that to days or even weeks, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

The satellite’s mission proved to everyone that dedicated undergraduate students could compete with the best in the space race — designing, building, testing, launching and operating satellites that deliver results, says Mann.

“It worked from launch, and it worked throughout its design life for 18 months until it burned up harmlessly in the atmosphere,” he says. “For a student-oriented group, that is a remarkable achievement.”

Of 50 satellites designed for the QB50 mission — some by seasoned space scientists — 36 successfully launched and 12 managed to send data back to Earth, says Carlos Lange, another academic adviser on AlbertaSat from the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Ex-Alta 1 was one of those 12.

“It had such a huge impact that the federal government gave money to the Canadian Space Agency for three more rounds of satellites from Canadian students,” says Lange. That funding resulted in the creation of the Canadian CubeSat Project.

“All eyes in Canada are now watching AlbertaSat — imitating its organization, leadership and assembly model.”

AlbertaSat has about 50 active members each semester from most engineering disciplines as well as science students, mostly from astrophysics and physics. Others include students from earth and atmospheric sciences and industrial design, as well as non-technical teams from education and business. Faculty members in engineering and science provide ongoing guidance. 

The project is open source, meaning all innovations and information gathered are shared with other student teams. For Ex-Alta 2, the AlbertaSat team struck a partnership with Yukon University and Aurora College in the Northwest Territories to help those schools build their own entries in the Canadian CubeSat Project. 

The U of A students designed and built the main satellites for their northern partners — a feat no other university team anywhere has ever accomplished — and the students from the northern universities provided the mission payloads.

Inspiring tomorrow’s space scientists

A central part of AlbertaSat’s mandate is to develop lessons and present them to elementary and high school students. Since the group’s inception, it has reached out to hundreds.

Cai was in junior high when she first heard about Ex-Alta 1 from a friend in university.

“I remember hearing she was helping to design and build a satellite — the first time Canadian undergraduate students had ever done it,” says Cai. “I don’t think I understood it at the time, but it kind of stuck with me.

“Before I went into engineering, I would look at a computer and think, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ Technology was like a black box. It’s very cool to now be able to see something so complex and say, ‘I know how each component works.’”

Cai’s friend was Callie Lissinna, who was responsible for leading Ex-Alta 1’s orbital operations team. After graduating with an engineering degree, she went on to co-found an Edmonton-based satellite company called Wyvern Space.

Lissinna’s shining example is one reason Cai decided to take engineering at the U of A and join AlbertaSat, along with dozens of others determined to land a career in space science.

“I would honestly characterize it as the defining experience of my undergrad,” says fifth-year engineering physics student Thomas Ganley, Ex-Alta 2’s project manager.

“It’s given me a tremendous amount of skill and abilities that will be valuable in my career, because the space industry in Canada is growing,” he says. “This is one of the best opportunities in Alberta for getting this kind of learning.”

Alumni of Ex-Alta 1 have gone on to careers with the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Canadian space technology company MDA, makers of Canadarm. Others have pursued graduate studies in aerospace.

AlbertaSat’s next project — already in the works — is another cube satellite that will launch into polar orbit to capture images of glaciers and ice caps.

“We’ve demonstrated that student teams are able to enter the new space race, to make measurements with miniaturized hardware that can’t be made anywhere else, for the benefit of humanity,” says Mann.