U of A students explore out-of-this-world solution to forest fires

An idea to monitor forest fire threat from space from a satellite the size of a loaf of bread has been accepted by the Canadian Space Agency for a mission in 2020-21.

"It will be able to predict where forest fires are most likely to start,' says one student

Callie Lissina is a third-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Alberta and project manager for the AlbertaSat team.

Two massive northern Alberta wildfires sparked an idea among some University of Alberta students that has really taken off — all the way into outer space.

The U of A was among 15 universities who learned Friday that they will receive funding from the Canadian Space Agency to design and build a cube satellite — a powerful satellite that is about the size of a loaf of bread — which will launched into space in either 2020 or 2021.

The mission of the Alberta satellite, named Ex-Alta2, will be to monitor forest fires and fire risk on Earth, said Callie Lissina, a third-year mechanical engineering student and the AlbertaSat project manager.

"We'll put a computer, a radio and a bunch of other instruments on the satellite to enable us to take photos of the Earth and download them so we can identify forest fire risk areas and actively monitor burning fires," she said in a interview with CBC's Radio Active.

"It will be able to predict where forest fires are most likely to start, monitor ones that are actively burning and monitor the post-burn scar effect that the fire leaves on the land when its done."

Data would be analyzed and could then be provided to interested clients, such as the Alberta government, she said.

A model of a cube satellite, on display during the Friday announcement that the University of Alberta has been approved to design, build and launch one into space. (CBC)

"The Department of Agriculture and Forestry could use our data to allocate firefighting resources if we've identified which spots are at the highest risk for forest fires," she said.

Ex-Alta2 will be the university's second cube satellite in outer space. Its first, Ex-Alta1, was launched in April 2017 with a mission to gather information about space weather and its potential impact on power and communication systems.

Along with forest fire monitoring and prediction, Lissina said Ex-Alta2 will also fly a magnetometer, which is the same space weather–measuring instrument that is on Ex-Alta1. "So we'll continue our mission here of understanding the space environment."

The U of A will receive $250,000 from the Canadian Space Agency toward the project as part of its acceptance into the Canadian CubeSat Project. As was the case with Ex-Alta1, the student group will also continue fundraising toward the project.

Lissina said the cube satellites are very small at 10 x 10 x 30 centimetres. When it comes to space missions, she said, size — and weight — matters. "It costs a lot to launch something into space if you have a lot of mass to it."

The AlbertaSat group is made up of about 50 students and about a dozen faculty advisors. The U of A teams will collaborate with teams in the Northwest Territories and Yukon to share equipment and expertise.

Lissina said the U of A  student group covers a range of disciplines across campus, ranging from engineering and mechanical engineering students to those in education, business and the faculty of agriculture, life and environmental sciences.

Members of the University of Alberta's AlbertaSat team at the Friday announcement. (CBC)

This year's mission, she said, was inspired by students who have been impacted by the two big wildfires in Alberta - Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray in 2016.

"We wanted to show that space could be used to benefit people here on Earth and here in the local community," Lissina said Friday, following the space agency's announcement..

"A group of students in Edmonton that were impacted by wildfires in the province over the last few years decided that they could help solve this problem with new technology."