Imagine a satellite the size of a loaf of bread floating through space. While it might seem inconsequential, the miniature satellite – called a cube satellite despite being rectangular – can provide those on Earth with tons of pertinent information related to space weather, which affects everything from GPS signals to messages between pilots and ground control.
A group of students and faculty members at the University of Alberta are creating just such a craft called AlbertaSat. Ian Mann, a U of A professor of space physics who’s involved with the project, says the space industry is seeing a miniaturization of objects in space. This means huge possibilities for the engineering of spacecraft. In the past, only those with “deep pockets and large wallets,” according to Mann, could even think about dabbling in the design of anything space-related, but now even students can create something that’s far more economical.
While AlbertaSat was designed for the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, which asked student teams to design a cube satellite, the project is now a part of the QB50 consortium mission that’s funded by the European Commission and will launch 50 of these spacecrafts at the same time. The aim is to demonstrate that research missions can achieve great things with compact crafts. The U of A raised the $60,000 launch fee, and is now crowdfunding to secure the rest of the funds.
The dimensions might be similar to a loaf of bread, but the ingredients inside are far more impressive than eggs and milk. The satellite carries tools allowing it to communicate with people on Earth and collect data. A computer deals with the timing and location of the vehicle. An instrument measures magnetic disturbances, and from that it can determine why GPS sensors and aviation communications are being interrupted.
And Mann says they also would like to take their donors into space. Not literally, of course, but by etching little nanochips with donors’ names, the group is offering people the chance to be tangible parts of the project. “The U of A has a motto: ‘Uplifting the whole people.’ So this is in a similar vein – launching the people who have uplifted our team and taking them into space,” he says.