Getting high on campus

Assuming all goes well in October 2012, the University of Manitoba will expand its facilities to include the lower reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Both graduate and undergraduate students from a diverse set of the university’s faculties are collaborating in the construction of a triple-pico satellite (T-Sat). The project is going to be entered in the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CSDC).

The CSDC is the first of its kind in our country. The contest was established by the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society Inc., a federally incorporated not-for-profit organization. The group’s goal, as stated on their website, is “for teams of university students, undergraduate and graduate, to design and build an operational small-satellite, based on commercially available, ‘off-the-shelf’ components.”

The University of Manitoba’s group is led by Prof. Witold Kinsner and Dario Schor, a M.Sc. student in computer engineering. The team consists team consists of over 90 undergraduate and graduate students from the engineering, science, business and art faculties, and is supported by more than 50 advisors from academia, industry, business, military and government.

While the “launching stuff into orbit on a rocket” part seems to be the biggest hurdle at first glance, it turns out the project’s challenges lie in the finer details. Once the satellite is in low Earth orbit, it has to work long enough to generate useful scientific data while resisting the extreme conditions of space. In our case, the data will include the behaviour of tardigrades in space and information about the sun provided by spectroscopy.

After finding out what the experiments would be, I got a little excited. It turns out I wasn’t the only one amped up about locally built spacecraft. I spoke with Arash Fazel-Darbandi, the University of Manitoba Space Applications and Technology Society (UMSATS) T-Sat power lead, as well as Matthew Woelk, the UMSATS T-Sat command and data handling lead. Both are M.Sc. students, with their fields of study being electrical and computer engineering, respectively.

Fazel-Darbandi’s power team is responsible for “implementing an efficient energy source, using solar panels and batteries, to secure energy required by the spacecraft for a minimum of one year.” So far, he says the biggest challenge has been a “ lack of experience about space technology.” The challenges faced by the satellite once it reaches orbit include space radiation, temperature and polarization. But Fazel-Darbandi is confident in his team. “We did a lot of research on previous designs, their successes and failures,” he says. “We also provided our team members with various software and hardware workshops. We had guest speakers from industries to show us the path we needed to take to be successful.”

So, while the power team’s contribution is supplying the necessary amps and volts, the command and data handling team’s handiwork will be churning bits and bytes. Woelk and his team are responsible for, as he puts it, “the brains of the satellite.” The project involves “designing a system of micro processors which will be able to coordinate all of the functions of the satellite with a custom-built scheduler, and a redundancy system which will be able to survive one of the processors dying completely.”

Computing in space has its challenges too, Woelk explains: “Once the satellite is launched, there won’t be any way to bring it down for repairs if something goes wrong, so the redundancy system is critically important. Also, space has much higher radiation levels than in our atmosphere, so it’s a whole new level of protection that we need.”

When they’re not engaged in designing satellite parts, both students are busy being optimistic about academia’s future in space exploration.

Fazel-Darbandi hopes that the CSDC’s goals will affect students from across the country. “This is the first time we have such a competition in Canada; we just need support from university professors, faculties and media to introduce this new area to all the students. This is not only an engineering project; this is a multi-disciplinary project which requires corporation of all faculties from education, arts, business, science to engineering”

Woelk sees a future where both businesses and students venture into space. “I think that as private industry gets more into space exploration, we’ll see a huge boom in the industry. We can already see that starting to take place. I also think that satellite launches will become more a part of university programs because we’re finding simpler ways to reach space.”

Both Fazel-Darbandi and Woelk agree the project is a product of our times. When asked if this would have been a feasible endeavour ten years ago, both agreed that although possible, it would have been more costly and complicated.
So, who knows, maybe the grads of 2050 will be busy designing products for our brave colonists on Mars?

Originally published in the Gradzette.