Student satellite project prepares for liftoff

April 04, 2022

Students at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia have partnered to design and build a satellite that will be launched into orbit onboard a SpaceX rocket.

Work on the project, a collaboration between UBC Orbit and the SFU Satellite Design Team, began in 2020. About 70 people across both universities are volunteering their expertise in various disciplines including science, engineering, marketing and business to take their passion for space exploration to new heights. 

The satellite itself is a small 10x10x10 cm 1U cube weighing 2kg and is named ALEASAT, from the Latin word ‘alea’ meaning dice or a game of chance as it represents a unique opportunity for students. ALEASAT will contain highly sophisticated technology, including a camera that can take pictures of the Earth and a miniaturized human centrifuge. 

Project ALEASAT science lead Donya Divsalar studies astronaut health and will be analyzing the data collected by the scale model of a human centrifuge onboard the satellite. 

“When we are in microgravity our bodies behave differently and a lot of the fluid shifts upward, which this can be quite problematic for astronauts’ muscles, bones, vision and brain,” says Divsalar, who is a master of science candidate in biomedical physiology and kinesiology currently studying aerospace physiology. “A centrifuge can create artificial gravity that would simulate Earth-like conditions for astronauts in space to keep them healthier for longer missions to the Moon and Mars.”

The team will study the different impacts that this module will have on the spacecraft, such as vibrations and torque, then apply what they’ve learned to the first completely Canadian Short-Arm Human Centrifuge currently under design for installation at SFU’s Aerospace Physiology Laboratory, under director Andrew Blaber’s supervision.

The camera onboard the satellite will be capable of taking pictures of the Earth from orbit. The team plans to train amateur radio operators, who can then send a signal to ALEASAT and request a picture of their area, bringing them live imagery for disaster relief and mitigation.

ALEASAT project manager Kevin Burville says the team is looking towards early 2023 to launch the satellite. Their satellite will be one of many to make the journey “carpooling” on the rocket before being deployed in the Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

“Being able to launch a satellite into space and have an actual satellite in orbit that you can operate and communicate with itself is incredibly exciting - especially being able to do that at a student level,” says Burville, who is a recent graduate from the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering at SFU.

“It’s not something that you could do 10 years ago and maybe even five years ago. It’s really something new and it’s an exciting opportunity that I think students now have and I hope that this is just the first of many,” he adds.

Students who are interested in joining the project can learn more and reach out to the team through their website. SFU Satellite Design Team team notes that one of their major supporters is the SFU Student Society. 

Once the satellite is in orbit, generations of students from both SFU and UBC will be able to contact and operate the satellite for a period of two to five years. The satellite will then gradually dip lower in its orbit before burning up in the atmosphere marking the end of a successful voyage.