Big in Japan
AlbertaSat-1 wins international honour at conference
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Thursday, Oct 18, 2012 06:00 am
A big idea for a small satellite has earned a local science team an international award.
The University of Alberta’s AlbertaSat-1 team received the International Academy of Astronautics Award at the second annual Mission Idea Contest held Oct. 10 in Nagoya, Japan. The conference challenged teams from around the world to design tiny satellites that would be judged by some of the top minds in space science.
St. Albert’s Jordan Backs, who represented the team at the conference, said he was absolutely ecstatic when they got the award, which recognized the team’s use of nanosatellites to address climate change. “It definitely made my day.”
This team is just two years old, said Ian Mann, a professor of space physics at the University of Alberta familiar with the contest, and has already received international recognition. “They really should be congratulated on their achievement.”
A fifth-year electrical engineering student at the University of Alberta, Backs joined the AlbertaSat-team in 2010 and is now one of its co-leaders.
When you think of satellites, he said, you usually think of huge multi-million dollar devices built by groups like NASA that are far beyond a student’s budget.
But the trend over the last decade has been towards smaller, cheaper ones called CubeSats, he continued — standardized cubic probes no bigger than a litre that can be built with off-the-shelf technology, stacked and launched Pez-dispenser-style from a single rocket.
“It dramatically reduces the cost to design a satellite and launch it into space,” he said. “Instead of looking at $500 million, you’re looking at costs below $1 million.” This brings satellite technology to the masses, and has inspired a lot of new ideas. “It opens up a lot of doors.”
AlbertaSat-1 is meant to study the sources and sinks of greenhouse gas emissions from the Alberta oilsands, Backs said. “The Alberta oilsands are going to be a big source of carbon dioxide, but where does it go after that? How does it affect the ecosystem?”
Backs and his team hope to build a probe the size of a loaf of bread that will orbit about 700 kilometres above the Earth. Using a near-infrared spectrometer, the probe will scan for greenhouse gases like CO2, methane and water vapour and track what spits them out and sucks them up.
The probe will have to point itself in the right direction — a trick it will perform using spinning wheels and the Earth’s magnetic field — transmit its results planet-side, and survive the blazing heat, freezing cold and deadly radiation of space.
One of the team’s biggest challenges so far has been money. “None of us are millionaires,” Backs said, and it’s been tough finding sponsors for the $500,000 project.
This award gives the team international publicity, Backs said, and should help them draw sponsors. “It really shows that we’re on the right track.”
Mann called this satellite “an illustration of the future,” a future where scientists and businesspeople use cheap satellites for everything from international finance to disaster monitoring.
“If Canada is to really benefit from that opportunity as it comes forward, then we in the university sector need to be delivering graduates and trainees who have the skills and the experience levels to really exploit that opportunity.”
The team has built its own power system for the probe, Backs said, and planned to build the rest of it out of commercial parts once it finds the money. The team hoped to have the probe launched by the end of 2013.
Backs will have graduated by then, but said he planned to stick with the project until it was finished. “I’ve put a lot of work into this. I don’t want to see it die.”