Monday, July 07, 2014

BRITE Montreal Satellite Fails to Deploy after Launch; Presumed Lost.

          by Brian Orlotti

On July 3rd, researchers announced that a Canadian nano-satellite, launched June 19th, 2014 from Yasny, Russia, that was to be part of a satellite constellation unlocking the secrets of star evolution has likely been lost.

The Dnepr rocket launched from Yasny, Russia on June 19th, didn't just carry the Canadian build BRITE Montreal and BRITE Toronto satellites. Thirty-three satellites were initially deployed from the Dnepr. One of those satellites UniSat-6 carried four smaller satellites, Tigrisat, Lemur 1, ANTELSat and AeroCube 6, which were deployed on June 20th. On June 23rd, AeroCube 6 split into two separate satellites bringing the total of deployed satellites to thirty eight. All satellites with the exception of BRITE Montreal are currently functioning normally. Graphic c/o AMSAT-UK.

As outlined in the July 3rd, 2014 Globe and Mail article "Canadian astronomy satellite lost as another looks for rescue," the missing satellite (named BRITE Montreal) was one of six 8-kg nano-satellites comprising the BRIght Target Explorer (BRITE) Constellation, a joint project of Canada, Austria and Poland in which a group of six 8-kg nano-satellites (two from each nation) will measure the fluctuations in brightness of a large number of bright stars to gain insight into their evolution.

Slavek Runcinski. Photo c/o Astro Toronto.
The BRITE mission concept was designed by Professor Slavek Rucinski of the University of Toronto  and built on technology developed originally for the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) space telescope. Canada's two satellites, dubbed BRITE-Montreal and BRITE-Toronto, were built at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) and launched on a re-purposed Russian ICBM on June 19th.

The SFL said in a public statement that although the ICBM's manufacturer, the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, initially confirmed that all thirty-three satellites on-board the missile had successfully achieved orbit, they have since back-pedaled and cannot verify that BRITE-Montreal separated from its launcher. The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), which tracks all satellites orbiting Earth, has found no object in BRITE-Montreal's expected orbit.

BRITE-Toronto, launched on the same missile, appears to be  functioning normally.

BRITE-Montreal's loss comes on the heels of the July 3rd, 2014 publication in Science Magazine of the paper "Echography of young stars reveals their evolution" which confirmed the effectiveness of BRITE's predecessor, the MOST space telescope and confirmed the link between a star's changes in brightness and its age.

For scientists, the news is a bitter pill to swallow in light of the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) recent announcement that it will shutdown the still functioning MOST space telescope on September 9th, 2014 in order to cut costs. The CSA's decision to terminate MOST has triggered a scramble to find alternative means of funding its $300,000 CDN annual operating cost. MOST Principal Investigator Dr. Jaymie Matthews is courting corporate sponsors as well as seeking aid from the European Union.

Brian Orlotti.
The loss of BRITE-Montreal and the shutdown of MOST do represent setbacks to Canadian space science, but are hardly insurmountable ones. When they are overcome, Canadians will continue to unravel the secrets of the stars.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.


  1. While the probable loss of BRITE-Montreal is annoyance, thanks to the overall approach taken by the BRITE Constellation Mission it is not really a setback. The basic concept of the BCM was to build and launch a set of near-identical satellites, each capable of making its own independent observations, with the scientists who championed (and got funding for) each satellite-pair pooling and sharing the observations from all the satellties. That way, if one or more of the satellites failed to reach orbit (something that happens 10-20% of the time for small satellites), while the total number of observations per year would go down, all the scientists on the BRITE science team would still have plenty of access to in-orbit observations.

    This approach is one of the core strategies which microsat (and now nanosat) developers have advocated for years --- e.g., in a CASI paper I co-wrote (with Peter Stibrany) in 2000, titled "The Microsat Way in Canada" (hmm, I see that SFL has taken that off their web-site...I'll have to re-post it on Google Books, or some such place). It is something that you can afford to do with ultra-low-cost satellites. It amounts to optimizing the risk profile of a space mission by exploiting redundancy at the whole-satellite level, rather than at the subsystem or component level. The BRITE Constellation is one of the first missions to adopt this concept in its pure form (SSTL's Disaster Monitoring Constellation being another), and the loss of BRITE-Montreal illustrates the wisdom of adopting the concept.

    Satellite losses on launch are inevitable, and they are about the largest risk that any small satellite mission faces. However, they can in some cases be effectively mitigated using this approach.

    That being said, we all sure wish that BRITE-Montreal had been successfully released!

    - Kieran

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Kieran.

    The paper titled, "The Microsat way in Canada," is currently available online at


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