Democratizing the space race with nanosatellite technology

AlbertaSat will bring home world-class data using smaller-than-ever instruments with the fluxgate magnetometer on the Ex-Alta 1 CubeSat.

Katie Willis - 19 December 2016

Smaller, faster, cheaper-miniaturised space technology opens the door to future University-based space exploration.

Researchers with the University of Alberta's AlbertaSat team present the miniature fluxgate magnetometer, destined to go where no such magnetometer has gone before atop the Ex-Alta 1 CubeSat set for launch in spring 2017.

Designed and built by faculty and students with the University of Alberta Faculty of Science and Faculty of Engineering, the modern, low-cost, and miniature instrument will facilitate cutting-edge space research conducted from its place on-board cube satellites.

Democratizing the space race

"Historically, space research has used one, or at most a handful, of large, expensive spacecraft to explore near-Earth space and our solar system," explains David Miles, PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and principal investigator for the instrument. "While this has provided stunning insight into our planet and our solar system, it necessarily gives a limited and incomplete picture."

Nanosatellite technology, such as the fluxgate magnetometer, ushers in the next generation of space research which in future can open the door to swarms of miniaturised spacecraft encircling the Earth.

"Imagine trying to understand and predict the path hurricanes with only a few weather stations dotted around the world" said Ian Mann, professor in the Department of Physics and the co-lead for Ex-Alta-1. "That's the current challenge for accurate space weather forecasting in the vastness of space around the Earth. However, miniaturised technology would enable swarms of perhaps hundreds of spacecraft or more to pin-point the potentially destructive paths of space storms."

>Weathering the storm

The newest space science instrument from the University of Alberta is a novel fluxgate magnetometer which will fly into space atop AlbertaSat's Ex-Alta 1 CubeSat early next year. The miniature, low-cost instrument will take world-class measurements of the near-Earth magnetic field which influences space weather, demonstrating the potential of nanosatellite technology to significantly reduce barriers to entry and democratize the space race.

"Once we have a flight-proven instrument, we have several international collaborators interested in flying our instrument for their own research," says Miles. "Tens or even hundreds of spacecraft can provide a dynamic, three-dimensional, and high-resolution picture of the space we inhabit, thereby improving the understanding of such threating space weather storms."

Researchers at the University of Alberta have opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in this new space race using hands-on space research involving modelling, data analysis, meteorites, high-altitude balloons, sub-orbital rockets, and CubeSat missions. Interested students should contact the University of Alberta's Institute for Space Science, Exploration and Technology.

These recent research findings, "A miniature, low-power scientific fluxgate magnetometer: A stepping-stone to cube-satellite constellation missions," were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics in January 2017. This research was conducted with the support of the Canadian Space Agency.