A one-of-a-kind satellite developed by University of Alberta students is almost ready to shoot for the stars this summer.
The small satellite, called Ex-Alta 1, is the first ever to be made in Alberta and has been under development for the past three years by AlbertaSat, a group of 40 undergraduate U of A students.
The type of satellite is called a cubesat and it's about the size of a loaf of bread, but it's got a big job to do.
Back in 2013, the group of students entered an international QB50 Mission, which would allow 50 different cubesats from around the world to participate in a scientific study of the lower atmosphere.
Come July, the students will finally launch their satellite into orbit, where it will be taken to the International Space Station.
When it's deployed on its own sometime in October, the students will have to wait a tense 30 minutes for it to start working to know whether their years of work has paid off.
If all goes according to plan, the satellite will then send bursts of data every time it passes overhead for a year and a half before burning up in the atmosphere.
The data it collects will be invaluable for understanding space weather, said Charles Nokes, the project manager and a U of A engineering physics student.
"It's a bit about discovering the unknown out there, and I wanted to be a part of it." - Tyler Hrynyk
"The lower atmosphere where we will be flying, the whole region and the Earth's magnetic field and how all that interacts with the sun, that is something that we really need a better understanding of, because there is potential of it to really affect what is going on in the ground, especially as we get more dependent on technology," Nokes said.
"We're constantly learning new things with this project about aerospace. Working with our professors, we're breaking ground on completely new things for western Canada and Alberta, and it's exciting in that way."
Satellite made through volunteer work
The students involved in the project have diverse backgrounds — from science and engineering to economics and education, all 40 students have not only volunteered their time for the project, they've built curriculum to be used in elementary schools and are planning on expanding this to high schools as well.
This type of satellite was first used in the 1990s, Nokes said, so it's still considered very new technology.
"The number of these small satellites that are being built and used to do new science and provide experience to all different … age groups, from elementary school up to the university level is increasing," Nokes said. "It's something that hasn't been seen before; that kind of access to space and space technology is very new."
Alberta researchers have relied on other Canadian-built satellites to use in the past, but this is the first fully developed-in-Alberta satellite, said mechanical engineering student Tyler Hrynyk.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were needed to fund the launch of the satellite. The money came from different space organizations, the U of A and through crowdfunding efforts.
The cubesat is now in its final testing phases, but it's not the end of the road for the students involved in the project.
"It's a bit about discovering the unknown out there, and I wanted to be a part of it," Hrynyk said.
"This isn't just a one and done thing for us. We want to continue this and bring a space industry here, a space culture here.
"Hopefully this is just the beginning."