Space. The final frontier.
These are the voyages of AuroraSat, the Northwest Territories’ first spacecraft built by the Inuvik CubeSat team — set to launch into orbit this spring.
Its one-year mission: to showcase Northern artwork against a backdrop of the curvature of the Earth, to broadcast messages in Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun and to measure the Earth’s magnetic field.
“It’s been a journey,” said Patrick Gall, engineering and technology projects technician with the Aurora Research Institute. “This last 18 months has been a real action-packed one where we got hardware and assembled it and started making something that really resembled the satellite. But the plan is we’re never going to see them again.
“We’re targeting Grade 10 to 12 students to spread the awareness of satellite missions and the jobs that could exist with technical education and specifically jobs in the space sector that are in the territory. This shows we can develop satellite technology in the territory. We have the equipment and expertise to do it here if we really wanted to.”
Built by the Aurora Research Institute (ARI) and the Inuvik Robotics Club, the project has been in the works since 2018 — making the Northern team one of 15 entries to complete the first Canadian CubeSat Project, overseen by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The AuroraSat team joined forces with the Yukon University YukonSat team and the University of Alberta to form the Northern Spirit Coalition.
Over the course of the project, the ARI employed a computer science student for a six-month internship through the Digital Skills for Youth program. Gall said nine students worked on the project throughout its lifetime.
Aside from ensuring it could withstand the freezing temperatures of the upper atmosphere and receive and transmit data back to the surface, to earn a spot in the heavens the team also had to ensure the pocket-sized object met a checklist of international safety protocols that would make it safe for astronauts to handle on the International Space Station. Because of the intense force a rocket needs to escape the Earth’s gravity, cargo on board could get knocked around and damaged. So the team’s CubeSat had to hold together so it didn’t pose a cutting, choking or other hazard in the zero-gravity of the space station.
The AuroraSat had to undergo and pass rigourous tests like being inside a vacuum, vibrating at extremely high frequencies and ensuring the lithium ion battery was safe for rapid changes in atmosphere.
A floating art gallery
Now that the team’s spacecraft is launch-worthy, the CSA has booked them a spot on a Falcon 9 rocket set to launch this spring. The rocket will take the 10 cm³ satellite to the ISS, where astronauts will launch it into orbit, ideally by the end of March or early April. Running on momentum alone, the spacecraft will soar roughly 400 kilometres at a 55-degree inclination orbit — not enough for the AuroraSat to fly over Inuvik, but enough so that the ARI will be able to communicate with it for five-minute blocks four times a day.
From there, the satellite will display a rotation of Northern artwork on an LCD screen and take photos of it soaring high above the world — with the curvature of the Earth below and the vast expanse of the cosmos above. So far, 20 artists have submitted work for the Northern Images Mission, but there’s plenty of room for more.
Gall added the satellite connection with the ARI is such that researchers will be able to upload and download data from the CubeSat, meaning artists who would like to get their work on the satellite can still submit it for some time.
“It’s a floating art gallery in space,” he said. “We’re at the angle that we should get half Earth, half space in the photo so it should look really slick. We’ll rotate through the artwork and send down the captures of the artwork, then share them on our website. We’ll have a gallery of the artwork submitted and a gallery of the artwork in space.
“We can send up new artwork and pull down images. There’s also a scientific mission on all three satellites measuring the Earth’s magnetic field. So there will be a lot of talking going on.”
Even after the AuroraSat is launched, new images can be uploaded to it. It’s expected the AuroraSat will maintain orbit for roughly a year before running out of momentum and burning up in the atmosphere.
Building the knowledge economy
Designed to expose students to potential careers in the space and robotics industries, the Canadian CubeSat Project’s primary goal is to train the next generation of engineers.
Saying the best way to do that is for a student to complete a project end to end, CSA manager in Space Science and Technology Tony Pellerin said two CubeSats were already on the ISS and were due to be launched before the end of 2022.
Before they could get a spot on a rocket, the CubeSats needed to undergo ‘integration’ — both testing to ensure the CubeSat meets the aforementioned safety standards and then fitting the satellite into a larger launcher unit that the astronauts then launch from orbit.
“It’s like a small postal box,” Pellerin said. “All of the CubeSats are built and designed according to a standard. They’re integrated into a deployer that is launched in a cargo ship that includes food and supplies for the astronauts on the ISS.
“The astronauts on board the ISS will grab the deployer systems and stack them up into a configuration that looks more like a mailbox. There’s a robotic arm that will grab this deployer system, bring it outside and away from the ISS. A command will be sent to open a small door at the end of each box and a spring inside will push the CubeSat away from the ISS — it’s not the only way of launching the CubeSat, but it’s the way CSA chose.”
A key factor in using the ISS to launch the spacecraft is the low-orbit basically guarantees the CubeSats will burn up in the atmosphere, preventing them from joining the cloud of “space junk” of leftover debris that is still floating in higher orbits.
With the first 15 teams now close to finishing the project, Pellerin said the CSA is planning to continue the project, reviewing proposals from between eight to 10 teams. Applications to join the next run are closed, but he estimated the next batch would be ready to fly within three years.
A CubeSat is an open-source, do-it-yourself satellite that can be built by anyone with access to a 3D printer and a desire to learn. Plans to build and design your own CubeSat can be found online along with a wealth of literature on different applications. A community of hobbyists are continually providing feedback and support for eager backyard space explorers. Compacted into the 10 x 10 x 10 centimetre box is a power source and an on-board computer on top of the instruments the satellite is actually carrying. They can scale up in size, though the largest the CSA is allowing in the program is 30 x 30 x 30 cm.
Gall noted the ARI’s system will be available as open source for anyone who wants to repeat their work. The main obstacle towards getting CubeSats in orbit is getting them launched. Pellerin noted getting a CubeSat a spot on a rocket costs around $100,000. That’s cheap by space launch standards, but out of most hobbyists’ price range. So Pellerin said the CSA would continue to foot the bill through programs such as the Canadian CubeSat Project to help Canada’s amateur space-explorers boldly go where no one has gone before.
Visit http://northernimagesmission.ca to submit artwork or to learn more about the project.