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...

Figure 4 : DFGM accommodation on the YukonSat spacecraft. The instrument’s sensor is shown in blue.

Each Norther SPIRIT institution will design their own scientific 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 shared scientific payload, 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 collect data related to space weather phenomena The DFGM is shown stowed against the side of the YukonSat satellite in Figure 4.

Once the satellites are launched, they will share the University of Alberta’s UHF Ground Station on campus, alongside Natural Resource Canada’s Prince Albert and Gatineau S-band Stations. Additionally, each institution will have their own unique goals and objectives carried out via individual payloads, alongside the joint Northern SPIRIT mission objective of training students to prepare them for careers in the space sector.

AuroraSat from Aurora Research Institute

Aurora Research Institute, as part of the joint Northern SPIRIT mission, has designated three main educational outreach goals specific to their CubeSat project. These payloads are named Northern Images, Northern Voices, and Northern Games and each will focus on expanding STEM outreach opportunities for arts and languages. 

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.

The Northern Voices objective will use northern stories shared by participants about space and the sky which will be uploaded to AuroraSat. These stories will then be transmitted and broadcasted to amateur radios across the country in indigenous languages.

Finally, 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.

YukonSat from Yukon University

The mission itself will 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. The mission will also further engage and educate the public on concepts relating to operations, coding, data analytics, and other activities in space.

The payload forming the primary 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 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 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
Mission Objective
Ex-Alta 2 is a 3U cube satellite whose primary payload is a multispectral imager, to obtain scientific data for wildfire research and prevention. It will also include a digital fluxgate magnetometer to gather magnetic field data of the ionosphere.
YukonSat is a 2U cube satellite whose 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 primary payload is an education outreach project, aimed at transmitting Northern Canadian stories and images to amateur radio operators. The outreach missions concentrates on expanding STEM outreach opportunities to include arts and languages.
  • Digital fluxgate magnetometer
  • High resolution earth observation payload
  • Digital fluxgate magnetometer
  • Low resolution earth observation payload
  • Digital fluxgate magnetometer
  • Low resolution earth observation payload
  • 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
Microprogrammed Control Unit (MCU) controlling
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: Prince Albert, Saskatchewan/Gatineau, Quebec (downlink)
  • UHF: Edmonton, Alberta (uplink and downlink)
  • S-band: Prince Albert, Saskatchewan/Gatineau, Quebec (downlink)
  • UHF: Edmonton, Alberta (uplink and downlink)
  • S-band: Prince Albert, Saskatchewan/Gatineau, Quebec (downlink)
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

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