The Experimental Albertan #1 (Ex-Alta 1) satellite provides a platform for the University of Alberta to demonstrate their newly designed digital fluxgate magnetometer in a space environment. In addition, the completion of the Ex-Alta 1 satellite is providing not only valuable insight, experience, and credibility to the space engineering and scientific capabilities of the University of Alberta, but also providing the means to spread awareness of space technology and impart a unique educational opportunity for all Albertans alike.
Ex-Alta 1 Primary Mission Objectives
The objectives of the Ex-Alta 1 Satellite are of a space engineering, science and developmental nature.
- Serve as a platform for the In Orbit Demonstration (IOD) of a digital fluxgate magnetometer designed at the University of Alberta.
- Address multi-point space plasma physics with data from the QB50 constellation using the Langmuir probe common payloads as well as the digital fluxgate magnetometer.
Ex-Alta 1 Secondary Mission Objectives
The secondary objectives of the Ex-Alta 1 Satellite are of a developmental, political and educational nature.
- Promote education of space science and engineering through all levels of the educational sector of Alberta.
- Provide a foundation on which to begin a space engineering, space science and/or cube satellite program at the University of Alberta.
- Promote the development of an Albertan commercial space industry and augmentation of current staple industries with space technology.
The Ex-Alta 1 Mission
The Ex-Alta 1 satellite is participating in the QB50 mission – proposed by The von Karmen Institute of Fluid Dynamics (VKI) in Belgium – to provide in-situ measurements of the lower thermosphere. The Ex-Alta 1 Satellite is currently orbiting the Earth hosting the QB50 Langmuir probe payload package, which is used to measure electron temperature and density of the plasma surrounding Earth.
The digital Fluxgate Magnetometer (FGM) payload proposed for flight on the Ex-Alta 1 satellite had been originally designed at the University of Alberta for space physics applications in the Van-Allen radiation belts aboard the Outer Radiation Belt Injection, Transport Acceleration and Loss Satellite (ORBITALS). The digital FGM is a novel design that allows for high frequency measurements of the Earth’s magnetosphere. The digital FGM’s size and measurement range allow small satellites to preform scientific measurements of the Earth’s magnetic fields that would normally require an induction coil magnetometer. The reduction in mass and power required for function on a cube satellite like Ex-Alta 1 is attractive to the design and operation of future small satellite missions to study the Earth’s magnetosphere and possibly planets beyond our own.
Our satellite also includes an open-source on board computer, Athena, designed by our Embedded Systems Lead, Stefan Damkjar. Athena is successfully running on-board and is the first part of a Open Source CubeSat platform.
The Importance of Studying Space Weather
Space weather can affect satellites in orbit, the radiation exposure of personnel in airplanes, power infrastructure, pipeline infrastructure and life on Earth in general. A good example is the Carrington Event: a event in 1859 in which a solar flare and coronal mass ejection hit Earth’s magnetosphere causing the most extreme geomagnetic storm on record. The bright aurora was observed as far south as the Caribbean, and telegraph lines were seen sparking and lighting on fire.
In March 1989 a much smaller geomagnetic storm knocked the hydro Quebec electrical grid offline for 9 hours and caused intermittent problems in the GOES weather satellite, NASA TDRS-1 communication satellites and even in the Space Shuttle Discovery. If a storm the size of a Carrington Event were to happen today, it would likely have devastating effects on our modern technological society. Satellites in high orbits could be knocked out and power grids around the world permanently damaged or destroyed.
In a recent investigation highlighted by the New York Times, US and UK science advisors estimated the cost of a severe space weather storm to be about “$2 trillion during the first year in the United States alone, with a recovery period of 4 to 10 years.” Studying space weather and the interaction of the Sun with the Earth’s magnetosphere will allow us to improve our understanding of solar storms and help minimize the global impact of potentially crippling events in humanity’s age of technology and reliance upon electricity.
The scientific purpose of Ex-Alta 2 is to demonstrate the capabilities possessed by a cube satellite Platform for predicting, tracking, and assessing the after effects of wildfires. Ex-Alta 2 will also significantly drive forward the open source model being developed at the University of Alberta, taking steps towards the long-term goal of a fully open sourced cube satellite.
Wildfire’s are something that dramatically affect not only residents of Alberta, but many communities around the globe. Canada-wide an average of 2.5 million hectares of land are burned annually, the impact on the communities in rural areas at risk of wildfire damage is massive. An in-house built multispectral imager flown onboard Ex-Alta 2 will be able to study the entire life cycle of a wildfire, giving us the capability to reduce the risk of occurrence and damage in the future. Data will be acquired about the cyclic and seasonal phenomena through the study of phenology to inform scientists and emergency services where wildfires are likely to start. Aerosol particles will be tracked to create an accurate profile of currently burning wildfires as often times smoke is a better indication for early detection than thermals. Post burn effects will also be assessed, with the goal of learning more about the rate at which the land recovers and the effects of scarring. Ex-Alta 2 serve as a proof of concept for a constellation of cubesats that can accurately predict and monitor wildfires with the information being relayed to emergency services in a timely manner.
An open source cubesat could cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Currently, a commercially purchased “off the shelf” cubesat costs greater than $200,000. This reduction in price would provide dramatically increased accessibility for any group wanting to participate in satellite design. Another benefit is that all the designs are open source, allowing groups and individuals to construct cubesat components without extensive prior knowledge of cubesats. The reduced price and provided technical insights would provide an avenue for significantly more contributions and participation in the cube satellite community. Cube satellites were originally designed as an educational tool, AlbertaSat’s open source model will allow universities with smaller budgets, private groups, and perhaps even high schools, to get involved in building their own cubesats. Additionally, because there would be more people working on the designs, improvements would increase at a much faster rate than seen otherwise. Everyone would consequently benefit from more robust and reliable designs.
The open source components being flown on Ex-Alta 2 are; the Icarus cubesat structure, electronic power supply board, ultra high frequency communications board, on board computer Athena version 2.0, and the multi-spectral imaging payload. All of these components represent a significant step forward towards a fully open sourced cube satellite bus. After performing to specifications on the Ex-Alta 2 mission, these open source components will have “flight heritage” which demonstrates a massive reduction in the level risk for any group electing to use them on future missions.
Ex-Alta 2 represents a significant step forward for the University of Alberta’s satellite ambitions. Designing most of the components in-house poses significant challenges for the AlbertaSat team, but they are welcome challenges for a tenacious group of students that is driven to make an impact in the space community.