Monday, May 07, 2018

Canadian Cubesat Project Finally Moving Forward

         By Chuck Black

It's got more academic, industry and government/non-government advisors than it has teams actually building something. And since there seems to be a whole lot of importance attached to the outcome, it's likely that there's also a whole lot of administration in the background to manage the program.

But most of the serious industry players, including Hawthorne, CA based SpaceX (currently working on its Starlink satellite constellation), Arlington, VA based OneWeb (currently building out its OneWeb satellite constellation) and Ottawa ON based Telesat (currently testing the first satellite in a planned low Earth orbit constellation), aren't involved in the project, at least for now.

Neither are many of the smaller domestic players in the satellite industry, such as Toronto, ON based Kepler Communications or Montreal, PQ based GHGSat.

Be that as it may, and after a year of waiting, on Friday, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced the fifteen post-secondary based teams it picked to participate in the Canadian Cubesat Project (CCP).

The CCP provided grants of between $200,000 - $250,000 to fifteen proposals submitted by university professors to build and launch small cubesats (normally a low weight, 10×10×10 cm cubic satellite) by 2020. The announcement was made by CSA astronaut Jenni Sidey in Winnipeg, MB and streamed across Canada via FaceBook.

As outlined in the May 4th, 2018 CSA website, "Selected Teams," the competitors, "led by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)," will design, build and launch their cubesats, then operate and conduct "scientific experiments and/or validation of their technology development from space according to the objectives of their respective missions, which could last up to 12 months."

Along with the fifteen competitors, thirty-seven other organizations are listed under various roles as participating. Twenty-nine of those are Canadian institutions and the other eight are from Australia, Belgium, France, Norway, Portugal, Russia, and the United States.

As outlined in the May 4th, 2018 Nanoracks press release, "NanoRacks Selected as Launch Provider for Nationwide Canadian CubeSat Project," Webster, TX based Nanoracks, a US based commercial provider of satellite launch services, has been contracted by the CSA to manage the deployment of the cubesats, beginning in 2020.

Overall cost of the entire program (covering design, build, launch and operations), is expected to be approximately $8Mln CDN over four years.

By way of comparison, the overall cost of the Canadian built Microvariability and Oscillations of STars telescope (MOST), was generally considered to less than $10Mln CDN from from the beginning of the project until its sale to Mississauga ON based Microsatellite Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) in October 2014.

The CCP is promising to launch fifteen smaller satellites over the next few years, not one. All things considered it's hard to believe, at least from a financial perspective. If it does work out, its good value for the money, even if some of the cubesats end up failing.

Teams, projects and partners include:
  • The Edmonton AB based University of Alberta (UofA) Ex-Alta 2 cubesat. As outlined in the May 4th, 2018 UofA Faculty of Science post, "The future of wildfire monitoring," this is the second satellite to be designed and built by the AlbertaSat team, a group of "50 undergraduate and graduate students who work with the assistance of several faculty advisors at the University of Alberta."
Academic collaborators on this project include Aurora College, Yukon College, the University of Calgary, the University of Saskatchewan, York University, the University of Oslo (Norway), the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (Belgium) and the University of Iowa (USA).  
Academic collaborators for this project include Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, the Technical University of Lisbon (Portugal) and Harvard University (USA). 
UVIC also has a knowledgeable industry collaborator in the form of Palo Alto, CA based SSL, a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies which, although SSL's focus has always been on building large, expensive satellites for geostationary Earth orbit, it has at least launched a few satellites of its own. The governmental/NGO collaborator is Canada's National Research Council (NRC).
Academic collaborators for the project include the University of Winnipeg, York University and the Interlake School Division, which seems like an odd partner, given that it seems to be a Manitoban primary and secondary school division. The Industry collaborator is Mississauga, ON based Magellan Aerospace.
  • The Fredericton NB based University of New Brunswick (UNB) CubeSat NB high-precision satellite positioning and imaging project. CubeSat NB will provide "new insights into the behaviour of Earth’s ionosphere" by tracking signals transmitted by global navigation satellite systems, such as GPS, as they travel through the ionosphere and are affected by it.
Academic collaborators include the University of Moncton and the Saint John Campus of New Brunswick Community College. 
The academic collaborators is the University of Prince Edward Island. The Industry collaborator is St. John’s, NFLD based C-CORE
  • The Inuvik NWT based Aurora Research Institute (part of the larger Aurora College) AuroraSat. This project has an interesting artistic focus to "promote and share Indigenous culture across Canada through northern images, a project that will take northern art to space, where pictures of various pieces will be taken with Earth in the background" and "engage amateur radio across the country with stories and messages in Indigenous languages."
The academic collaborators include the University of Alberta, Yukon College, Nunavut Arctic College and the University of Alberta North. The government/NGO collaborator is the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure, a department of Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN). 
DUCS has no listed academic collaborators but industry partners include Halifax, NS based IMP Group International and Dartmouth, NS based Xeos Technologies
Industry partners include Bolton ON based Canadensys Aerospace and another Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies subsidiary, the Brampton, ON based MDA
  • The Hamilton ON based McMaster University (McMaster) NEUDOSE mission, a CubeSat to collect information on the dosimetry of charged and neutral particles
The academic collaborator is Mohawk College. The industry collaborator is ON based Bubble Technology Industries (BTI), and interesting company which conducts "innovative research in radiation, explosives, and contraband detection for clients around the world." The governmental/ NGO collaborator is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center which, to be fair, is one of the best organizations in the world to partner with if you want to launch something into space.

  • The Toronto ON based York University (York) educational space science and engineering cubesat experiment (ESSENCE).
Academic collaborators include the school of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at the Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology (ON) and the University of Sydney (Australia). Industry collaborators include Bolton ON based Canadensys Aerospace
Academic collaborators include the Memorial University of Newfoundland and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (in Russia). Industry collaborators include St. John’s, NL based C-CORE.
  • The Montreal PQ based Concordia University CHIRad satellite, which will test an imaging instrument to collect data on dust measurements and study the effect of climate change in the Kluane Lake region, located in the southwest area of the Yukon, and "evaluate the viability of a new electronic component that shows better resistance to the harsh conditions of space and that could improve the cost-effectiveness and performance of future CubeSat computers." 
The academic collaborators include Université de Montréal and L'Institut polytechnique de Grenoble (in France). Industry collaborators include the Montreal PQ office of MDA, Pointe-Claire, PQ based MPB Communications,  Ottawa ON based Mission Control Space Services, Paris France based Kalray S.A. and German based Spectrum Aerospace Group. Government/ NGO collaborators include London ON based Let's Talk Science
  • The Sherbrooke PQ based Université de Sherbrooke (Sherbrooke) UdeSat cubesat, designed to conduct one of the first demonstrations of a quantum sensor in space. Such measurements are useful to study the effect of solar storms on radio communication, GPS or electrical grids, or the flow of magma under Earth's crust.
Academic collaborators include the École nationale d'aéronautique. 
  • The Saskatoon SK based University of Saskatchewan (UofS) IDRSat. It will study how materials degrade in space by looking at how useful construction materials are affected by extreme temperatures, radiation, and space debris in low Earth orbit, and by studying material changes in colour, texture, brittleness, and electrical conductivity.
Academic collaborators include Saskatchewan Polytechnic (SK) and the University of Alberta. Industry collaborators include Saskatoon SK based SED Systems and Saskatoon, SK based Innocorps Research Corporation
  • The Whitehorse, Yukon based Yukon College YukonSat. The project will focus on promoting STEM and engage the community through three main initiatives relating to coding challenges and data analysis.
Academic collaborators include the University of Alberta and Aurora College. The governmental/NGO collaborator is Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN).

There's a lot riding on this program. The CSA has been considering funding microsats and cubesats since the 2010 CSA workshop on Suborbital Platforms and Nanosatellites, but nothing has moved forward until now.

Then again, and after eight years, you'd assume the CSA would have some of the major industry players on board with the program.

So far, that doesn't seem to be so. The lone exception is Maxar subsidiary SSL, which has experience in large geostationary communications satellites, not the smaller cubesat's needed for the CCP. The firms building lots and lots of commercial small-sats have, so far at least, decided to sit this party out.

Even the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Lab (SFL) is missing from the CCP list of competitors and partners. With its heritage of over a dozen successful microsat launches over the past decade, it seems obvious that, if anyone in Canada knows how to build a cubesat, it's the UTIAS SFL. If only they were contributing to the CCP.

It's almost as if, while there's a lot of organizations on the CCP list looking to learn how to make a cubesat, there's not a lot of organizations who already know how and are willing to share their expertise.

So while we're hopeful, we're also suitably cautious over the end result. 

Here's hoping the CSA, along with their cubesat developers and other partners, are able to prove us wrong over the next few years.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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