Satellite crowdfunding campaign lifts off

Students appeal to the public to fund the launch of a cube satellite designed and built at the University of Alberta.

Suzette Chan - 25 February 2014

(Edmonton) A group of University of Alberta science and engineering students are set to make waves on the cosmic shore, and they're offering the public a chance to be part of history and space through a crowdfunding initiative.

Physics professor Ian Mann is one of the faculty members involved in the Lift Off Alberta campaign to raise $60,000 to pay for the launch costs of a cube satellite that will be built entirely by University of Alberta students.

"The University of Alberta has a track record of excellence in participating in space missions" says Mann, who has overseen a number of payload projects that have shared space and time on satellites put together by international collaborations. "Now we're taking the next step from mission involvement to building our own satellite."

The University of Alberta has established broad scientific and engineering excellence in international space research, cross-disciplinary opportunities in research and industry. Projects include NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander and the Canada-Norway Sounding Rocket exchange program (CaNoRock), a partnership with the University of Oslo and the Andøya Rocket Range in Norway. CaNoRock allows undergraduate students to spend a week on site at the Andøya range to gain hands-on experience in sounding rocket and payload instrument design for course credit. Other programs include the award-winning Aurora Watch program-a real-time monitoring system of geomagnetic activity in Edmonton that alerts subscribers when "northern lights" auroras will be visible.

The new crowdfunding initiative will raise money toward the cost of launching a satellite being built by a group of UAlberta students and faculty members collectively known as AlbertaSat. The 10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm cube satellite, named Ex-Alta #1, will focus on understanding the science of how the sun drives space weather, the dynamic plasma and radiation environment experienced by satellites just above the Earth's atmosphere.

"Space weather is a rapidly evolving subject," Mann says. "??We understand space weather can have a huge effect on our technological infrastructure. It's been estimated that a severe space storm could cause $1 to 2 trillion dollars of damage to the infrastructure and economy, with a four- to 10-year recovery period. I would liken this project to the development of terrestrial weather forecasting. First, we have to understand the physics of the phenomenon before we can develop forecasting and warning systems. We're in a discovery phase."

While the AlbertaSat satellite itself will be 100% built and owned by the University of Alberta, it will be one of 50 cube satellites as part of the international QB50 cube satellite (or CubeSat) project. Each satellite will be built by a different group, but they will all contribute data to improve the global understanding of space weather.

To launch this new phase of the university's involvement in space missions, Albertasat has started a crowdfunding campaign through USEED to cover the $60,000 launch fee.

"The launch fee of $60,000 is much less than a commercially procured launch," says Mann. "By partnering with the QB50 program we have a very inexpensive way to get our satellite to space. This gives students the opportunity to not only be involved with designing and building a satellite, but also actually getting to launch and operate it in space!"

The Albertasat group also agreed that it would be important to offer donors a chance to be immortalized in space. For a minimum donation of $100, the students will engrave a donor's name on a microchip to be flown aboard the satellite. Because each CubeSat is designed to burn up in the atmosphere like a shooting star once its missions is complete, the molecules of the satellite - including those of the engraved chips - will float in the atmosphere at the edge of space.

"Carl Sagan once said that 'the surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean,'" said Mann. "Well, we're flying our satellite into the region where the dynamics of space are coming down to influence the earth."