Students one step closer to sending satellite into orbit

Business | Tech

After placing third in the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CSDC) on Sept. 29, UVic’s Experimental Cosmic Ray and Diamagnetic Scientific Satellite (ECOSat) team is now focused on the second iteration of the CSDC, in which the winning nanosatellite will be launched into orbit in the spring of 2014.

“It’s going to be more badass,” says Nigel Syrotuck, project manager at ECOSat and fourth-year engineering student, on the team’s next satellite design. “It’s going to have a lot of the same design elements as the last one, but this time we’re going to have more time to do them first, test them, do them again, make sure they work. It was 90 per cent done last time, and the last 10 per cent is going to take a year, because that’s what fine tuning always takes.”

Student teams from 12 universities across Canada competed in the recent challenge over the last two years to design and build a small, low-cost satellite that meets space qualification standards in order to be capable of an actual launch. The nanosatellites are roughly the size of a shoebox, measuring 10 by 10 by 30 centimetres and weighing less than four kilograms. They are capable of performing almost any type of mission, including Earth observation, communications or research in space sciences.

The competition is considered to be the first of its kind worldwide to offer university students the chance to design and then launch a satellite into orbit to conduct scientific research. The CSDC is held by space mission consulting and development company Geocentrix Technologies Ltd. and managed by a federally incorporated, non-profit organization, CSDC Management Society Inc.

The UVic ECOSat team’s satetellite placed behind designs by Concordia University and the University of Manitoba, which ranked first and second, respectively. The ECOSat team is made up of 20–30 undergraduate students, some of whom come and go with every new  semester due to the engineering department’s co-op program. Engineering professor Afzal Suleman acts as the team’s faculty advisor and project mentor, but the project is student-directed for the most part.

“The benefit is that the students learn to be self-reliant and intellectually independent,” writes Suleman in an email interview. Suleman is also the director of UVic’s recently opened Centre for Aerospace Research, which aims to expand its research scope to include satellite design research and development.

ECOSat’s satellite

The team plans to build on and improve the design submitted in the first part of the CSDC challenge for the second, upcoming competition. ECOSat’s design aims to be innovative in several ways. The nanosatellite will act as an open-source amateur radio relay and conduct experiments involving diamagnetics, such as an attempt to control the satellite’s positioning and de-orbiting with magnetic fields. (Diamagnetic materials create a repelling magnetic field when exposed to any external magnetic field.)

“You can imagine that anywhere a magnet is used, a diamagnetic might also be useful,” says Syrotuck.

“So it’s a technology of applications in lots of different places on earth and as well, it could be useful in space travel. If you’re trying to get from here to the nearest star, you can’t realistically use fuel because you’ll run out at some point. Using magnets, you basically have a fuelless propulsion system as long as there are magnetic fields kicking around. So this could one day lead to long-term, near-light space travel.”

Syrotuck says diamagnetism is not fully understood by experts, and its application in space is novel.

If it is successful, the satellite would also be an exemplar of a low-cost, low-risk solution to de-orbiting spacecrafts. Often, defunct satellites break apart or explode, creating debris, or space junk, that damages other satellites.

A.G.O. Environmental Electronics Ltd. is one of ECOSat’s most significant sponsors. The company has stayed on board to help develop the satellite’s capacity for experiments relating to diamagnetics in space.

“We have lots of resources in industry with aerospace companies who are always willing to provide information or insights to what we’re doing and whether it’s a good design or a bad design, or if we’re just crazy,” says Justin Curran, a fourth-year Engineering student and ECOSat’s chief engineer since the team’s inception. Curran also notes that several students have been offered jobs due to their involvement in the project.

Syrotuck agrees that the ECOSat project is a valuable opportunity for students.“It’s the practical side of the experience that you don’t get at university,” he says. He notes that students join the team wanting to help build a board (the platform on which the satellite’s computer chips are put together), but they don’t know how to solder the materials or run the software. “It’s kind of the key part that isn’t really hard enough to learn that they bother teaching it in university, but it’s so important that companies look for it. Students really benefit from being on this team, and we have benefitted a lot from being on this team. It’s certainly been an amazing part of my undergraduate.”

Syrotuck and Curran are working to obtain further funding and sponsorship —ECOSat had the lowest budget ($25 000) at the recent CSDC challenge — and solidify designs for the next satellite design challenge.

“I am confident that the team will do well,” says Suleman. “The quality of students and their commitment and leadership is exemplary.”