Northern SPIRIT

A Unique Opportunity...

The Northern Space Program for Innovative Research and Integrated Training (Northern SPIRIT) presents a unique opportunity for three Canadian post-secondary institutions to collaborate on nanosatellite design. Three CubeSats are being constructed as a collaboration between Yukon University, Aurora Research Institute in the Northwest Territories, and the University of Alberta. The three CubeSats are set to launch in 2022, with each project currently nearing its Critical Design Review (CDR) marking the transition from design to manufacturing. 

Supported by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) through the Canadian CubeSat Project (CCP), Northern SPIRIT will help further the CSA’s goal of expanding their representation to every province and territory. Through the CCP, the CSA aims to inspire the next generation of students to pursue work in the aerospace sector. All three CubeSat projects will also cooperate with NanoRacks LLC, a private space services company that has a device onboard the International Space Station for deploying CubeSats . 

What's the Deal with CubeSats?

Developed in 1999, Cube Nanosatellites (CubeSat for short) consist of units 10 x 10 x 10 cm in size. Each unit within the CubeSat adds a unique modular functionality, whether it be for data collection, communications, or housing the main board computer. CubeSats typically take on the appearance shown below (Figure 1, 2, 3).

CubeSats provide many advantages, compared to typical larger satellites: reduced cost of manufacturing, standardization of parts, fast production (within 2 years), and the production of no space debris as they burn up completely when re-entering the atmosphere. They also provide the perfect opportunities for educational outreach and application of aerospace engineering, offering affordable and practicable projects for student groups.

Figure 1

3D Render of Ex-Atla 2, University of Alberta’s second 3 unit (3U) CubeSat currently in production as part of the Northern SPIRIT initiative.

Figure 2

A render of YukonSat in the deployed configuration.

Figure 3

A render of AuroraSat in the deployed configuration.

The Mission Objectives...

The primary objective driving the three satellite projects is to promote an interest in STEM, space science, technology, and telecommunications, and to provide students in all three teams experience in designing and realizing space-related projects.

 

Amateur Satellite Radio

One of the main goals of this project is to implement an end-to-end communications system between the satellites and the AlbertaSat amateur radio ground station installed during the Ex-Alta 1 mission, in addition to remote operation capabilities permitting students at other universities to operate their satellites as well. The AlbertaSat ground station was first built to operate in the amateur radio UHF band and has been used as such for Ex-Alta 1 and remote operation of the York University DESCENT amateur satellite mission. New modifications and upgrades carried out by AlbertaSat student team members will replace the proprietary COTS UHF radio used for Ex-Alta 1 and DESCENT with a more versatile software defined radio, as well as implement amateur VHF and amateur S-band communications. 

Together with AuroraSat and YukonSat, Ex-Alta 2 will use digital audio to share stories about space and sky with amateur radio operators around the world. All three satellites will also operate a game over amateur radio that will require cooperation between amateurs in different regions to piece together the full recording. Finally, the three satellites are also designed to downlink payload data via the amateur S-band frequency band. With the advancement of modern telecommunications equipment and technology, an increased interest in S-band communications has emerged within the amateur radio community, and the AlbertaSat student team is excited to get involved and learn to operate in this part of the spectrum.

Secondary Payloads

DFGM accommodation on the YukonSat spacecraft. The instrument’s sensor is shown in blue [5].

Each Northern SPIRIT institution will design their own secondary payloads while the University of Alberta will design all 3 satellite buses. Production of the satellites will take place at the University of Alberta with the collaboration of all 3 teams. A key difference between the CubeSats is the number of cubes forming each. Both Yukon University and Aurora Research Institute will fly a 2 unit (2U) CubeSat, whereas the University of Alberta will fly a 3U CubeSat. As part of the Northern SPIRIT mission, each CubeSat will house a Digital FluxGate Magnetometer or DFGM. This DFGM was developed by a research group at the University of Alberta, led by Professor of Physics Ian Mann and will be used to acquire multi-point high resolution measurements of Earth’s magnetic field in the ionosphere. This will demonstrate the viability of flying identical instruments on multiple CubeSats for studying Earth’s magnetic field, and the magnetometer data will be made publicly available for use by space weather researchers to study magnetic field and ionospheric properties and understand their effects on current technology. Space storms can also create interesting auroral propagation paths for amateur radio operators. The DFGM is shown stowed against the side of the YukonSat satellite in Figure 4.

AuroraSat from Aurora Research Institute

Aurora Research Institute, as part of the joint Northern SPIRIT mission, has designated three main educational outreach goals for which they will lead the content creation. The primary payloads are named Northern Voices and Northern Games, the secondary payload is named Northern Images,  and each will focus on expanding STEM outreach opportunities for arts and languages.

The Northern Voices objective will use northern stories shared by participants about space and the sky which will be uploaded to all three Northern SPIRIT satellites. These stories will then be transmitted and broadcast on amateur radio bands across the country in indigenous languages.

The Northern Games objective will include a unique endeavour involving the development of a globally interactive game for amateur radio operators. Special recordings will be played in certain geographic zones, requiring global cooperation to decode a whole message. The content of the message will focus on northern indigenous histories and languages.

Finally, the Northern Images payload includes developing and attaching a platform which will display art on AuroraSat to be imaged by a camera mounted in front of the payload platform. The goal is to take images of the art from space with the earth forming the background. Aurora Research Institute will work with Northern artists to develop the art to be used.

YukonSat from Yukon University

The mission will further engage and educate the public on concepts relating to operations, coding, data analytics, and other activities in space. The mission will also provide the opportunity for Yukon University to expand its capacity of highly qualified personnel relating to space and science operations. This increased capacity will help the Yukon University to pursue more advanced space missions in the future. 

In addition to the Northern SPIRIT mission objectives, the payload forming the secondary mission of YukonSat will consist of a robotic arm, an OLED screen, and a sensor array. A camera will also be mounted on the end of the robotic arm and will be used to image the earth, moon, and other celestial objects of interest. The robotic arm itself will have two degrees of freedom provided by two motors. The sensor array will consist of multiple different sensors, including an inertial measurement unit, two thermistors, and up to two sun sensor arrays along with a UV sensor. This sensor array will be used to collect general data related to attitude determination. The payload will be interconnected to the University of Alberta manufactured bus and the Yukon University manufactured payload.

Ex-Alta 2 from the University of Alberta

The University of Alberta, having launched Ex-Alta 1 in 2017, is now building their second satellite Ex-Alta 2. As with the other collaborating institutions, the University of Alberta’s CubeSat will have a unique secondary objective. Ex-Alta 2 will use a multi spectral imager named Iris to take images of Earth’s surface allowing for analysis and predictions of forest fires. The secondary payload was chosen as a response to the fires that heavily impacted Fort McMurray in 2016. The images will be taken in the visible, near-infrared, and shortwave bands. Images in these bands allow for analysis of ground vegetation and the post-burn effects of fires. 

The main goal of this objective is to create an inexpensive, low mass, low volume multispectral imaging payload for CubeSat platforms. This will increase the amount of data available to wildfire scientists and help to prevent future disasters.

In addition to the multispectral imager, Ex-Alta 2 will also contain a DFGM, as part of the shared Northern SPIRIT scientific payload, to collect data related to space weather phenomenon. These two instruments will be operated by open-source hardware and software, developed in-house by University of Alberta students and researchers. The motivation behind developing this open-source software and hardware is to improve flexibility, decrease development time and decrease the cost of future CubeSat missions. Open-source hardware will also help to make projects like this more accessible for other student groups with more limited budgets. 

How AlbertaSat has been collaborating with Yukon University and Aurora Research Institution

The body of a satellite is also known as the bus component. It holds most of the necessary components of the satellite including: thermal control, navigation system , electrical power system and many other subsystems.

University of Alberta is responsible for the assembly of the 2U bus components for both the AuroraSat and YukonSat missions.  The payload components of the AuroraSat and YukonSat missions must integrate to become a part of a 2U satellite bus assembled by the University of Alberta as a part of the Northern SPIRIT consortium.

The payload of the Aurora College CubeSat will be designed and built by their own apart from the DFGM. Whereas the YukonSat team will assemble most of the payload system at YC facilities in Whitehorse. Whereas most manufacturing will be done at the U of A or through a contractor.

Similarities and Differences between Ex-Alta 1 or 2 and Northern SPIRIT

Ex-Alta 2 YukonSat AuroraSat
Secondary Mission Objective
Ex-Alta 2 is a 3U cube satellite operating in amateur radio whose secondary payloads are a multispectral imager, to obtain scientific data for wildfire research and prevention and a digital fluxgate magnetometer to gather magnetic field data of the ionosphere.
YukonSat is a 2U cube satellite whose secondary payload consists of a sensor array to collect general data related to attitude determination, and a robotic camera arm which will be taking images of the satellite, the Earth, Moon, and other desired celestial objects.
AuroraSat is a 2U cube satellite whose secondary payload is a platform which will display art to be imaged by a camera mounted in front of the payload platform. The goal is to take images of the art from space with the earth forming the background. Aurora Research Institute will work with Northern artists to develop the art to be used.
Secondary Payloads
  • Digital fluxgate magnetometer
  • Imaging payload
  • Digital fluxgate magnetometer
  • Imaging payload
  • Digital fluxgate magnetometer
  • Imaging payload
Software
  • On-board computer (OBC) Software, 
  • Ground Station Software, 
  • Payload Software (Iris Firmware and Digital FluxGate Magnetometer (DFGM) firmware)
  • UHF Communication
  • Payload software
  • Ground Station Software
  • DFGM firmware
  • Payload software 
  • Ground Station Software
  • DFGM firmware
Processing system
Hard Processor System
Microcontroller
Microprogrammed Control Unit (MCU) controlling
Orbit
ISS Orbit (51.64° inclination, approx. 410 km altitude)
ISS Orbit (51.64° inclination, approx. 410 km altitude)
ISS Orbit (51.64° inclination, approx. 410 km altitude)
Mission Duration
approx. 18 months
approx. 18 months
approx. 18 months
Groundstation Location
  • UHF: Edmonton, Alberta (uplink and downlink)
  • S-band: TBD
  • UHF: Edmonton, Alberta (uplink and downlink)
  • S-band: TBD
  • UHF: Edmonton, Alberta (uplink and downlink)
  • S-band: TBD
Bandwidth
26 kHz (UHF), 6.75 MHz (S-band)
26 kHz (UHF), 6.75 MHz (S-band)
26 kHz (UHF), 6.75 MHz (S-band)
Data Quantity
1.2 GB
1.1 GB
0.5 GB

By Dylan Fu, Adam Cruse and Jie Cheng 

This page was last updated January 2021