Space and time: Final countdown for U of A students building Ex-Alta 2 satellite

After five years of work, the team of University of Alberta students building a wildfire-tracking satellite is in crunch mode as the deadline nears to deliver it to the Canadian Space Agency. 

Ex-Alta 2, a cube-shaped satellite weighing less than three kilograms, will carry a camera — called IRIS — that will take images of current active wildfires and affected areas after the fires are out. It will also carry a magnetometer that will measure Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the satellite to study space weather. 

The satellite and most of its equipment have been designed and built by the U of A’s AlbertaSat team. 

And it all needs to be delivered to the Canadian Space Agency in October. 

“That is [a] particular challenge — just the hostility of the space environment and the fact that we have to design all of our systems to survive that,” said Thomas Ganley, AlbertaSat’s project manager. 

“It’s really crazy to think about. And to think that we as a student team get the chance to work on such a mission.” 

This is the second satellite designed and built by AlbertaSat. Ex-Alta 1 was launched to the International Space Station in April 2017 and assumed its orbit at an altitude of 415 kilometres the next month. 

Ex-Alta 1 was designed to study space weather and carried instruments to measure electron density of the ionosphere, magnetic signatures in space weather and radiation of the spacecraft. 

When the group decided what Ex-Alta 2 would study, wildfires were raging in Fort McMurray, prompting the team to dedicate the mission to wildfire science. 

But the satellite project also achieves another mission, giving U of A students a chance to gain practical experience executing a complex space science project. 

The student-built IRIS camera will photograph wildfires. (Liam Droog/AlbertaSat)

“AlbertaSat [is] unique in the sense that it’s a wholly student-led and run endeavour to put satellites into space,” said Steven Knudsen, industrial professor of engineering and AlbertaSat adviser. 

Faculty members provide guidance but all the decisions are made by the students, he said.   

And the project’s complexity is such that the students are functioning “at the level of someone with five to 10 years of experience,” said Knudsen. 

“The great thing is that they don’t know how hard it is going in. That’s a benefit — and of course, a bit of a detriment.”

Giving students “a very good hands-on experience on a real space mission” is the goal of the Canadian Space Agency, which provides the bulk of funding, according to Tony Pellerin, the agency’s manager of space science and technology.

WATCH | Students to launch satellite meant to monitor wildfires: 

Final countdown: U of A students build satellite

The Ex-Alta 2 satellite carries a camera built and designed by students to study wildfires. It is slated to be launched in January.

It is not just engineering and scientific abilities that the students have a chance to develop. Skills in project management and communication are equally important. The academic backgrounds of AlbertaSat members range from education and business to engineering and science. 

Currently, the students are testing the satellite’s components in a laboratory to ensure they function properly and will survive the violent launch on a SpaceX rocket. 

The assembly of Ex-Alta 2 is planned to begin in August, and the launch is planned for January next year. 

“The labs are very busy right now — lots of students coming in every day for countless hours to build and test different components,” said Abigail Hoover, the deputy project manager.

A red satellite with Earth in the background
A rendering of Ex-Alta 2 orbiting the Earth. (Nick Sorensen/AlbertaSat, background Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA)

While members of the AlbertaSat team all have their own studies to take care of, many see the challenge of designing a space satellite as something that will give them a competitive edge in the employment market. 

“They’re working with very complex systems but they’re also making them work. And this makes them very highly qualified for future jobs in Canada and beyond,” Knudsen said. 

Both Ganley and Hoover intend to remain in the space industry after they finish their education. 

Ganley hopes to use the experience and skills acquired while working on Ex-Alta 2 to start his own spinoff company. The Ex-Alta 1 project was the inception point of several start-ups including Promethean Labs, launched by a core group of Ex-Alta 1 members.   

Hoover’s grand ambition is to become an astronaut, “if there’s ever a spot open.”

“But I think just if I’m working in the space industry with like-minded people, I’m going to be pretty happy.”

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