Monday, April 03, 2017

UofT Undergraduate Satellite Builders Raise Almost $500K to Build & Launch a Microsatellite in 2019

          By Brian Orlotti

Katie Gwozdecky. Photo c/o UTAT.
A student group at one of Canada’s top universities has hit upon a unique funding method for a micro-satellite. The group’s success is an example of what grassroots efforts can achieve when capably led and possessed of a true unity of purpose.

In a recent interview with the Commercial Space blog, Katie Gwozdecky of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT), revealed that the student group has succeeded in raising almost $500K CDN to build a micro-sat for the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CSDC).

To raise these funds, UTAT, rather than appealing to the university’s administration or the Canadian government, chose to circulate a petition to add a small levy to the tuition of some 40,000 UofT students over two years.

UTAT began in 2004 as a five-member after-school project team building gliders to compete in the annual Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) Free-Flight Competition.

As the team matured and steadily rose through the competition’s ranks, they sought additional challenges. In 2006, their focus shifted to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International Aero Design Competition, where the team designed and built radio-controlled aircraft under various constraints and continue doing to this day.

Currently at 100 members, UTAT is organized into 5 divisions; Rocketry, Aerial Robotics, Space Systems, UAV and Outreach. As its ethos, UTAT places value on both generalists and specialists, believing they can learn from each other. This pragmatic mindset enables the group to draw from a broad talent pool of engineering, arts and science students. UTAT’s cohesion and inclusiveness stand in stark contrast to the endless division and parochialism of traditional space advocacy groups.

UTAT’s microsat, competing in the CSDC, will be based on the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’s (Cal Poly) Cubesat standard. Studying the behaviour of micro-organisms in space,  the satellite will serve as a prototype open-source platform for student experiments.

According to Gwozdecky, a mechanical engineering undergrad and UTAT’s the Director of Space Systems, the group’s members canvassed vigorously (and mostly on personal time) to gain the needed number of signatures. The levy ($2.77 CDN per student per semester), will be used to fund the construction of the satellite, perform testing and certification as well as purchase space on a launch vehicle.

When asked why UTAT chose this novel funding method for its satellite, Gwozdecky cited a variety of reasons:
  • A generally negative attitude towards the funding of student clubs/projects at UofT.
  • The lack of Canadian Space Agency funding for student projects (as compared to NASA, for example).
  • The high cost of testing the three iterations of their satellite required.
With this influx of funds, Gwozdecky said that UTAT will bring 3rd parties onboard to aid in project management, including Toronto-based satellite startup Kepler Communications, which was last profiled in the February 20th, 2017 post, "Those Pesky Kids at Kepler Communications."

UTAT expects to be able to launch their satellite by the third quarter of 2019. It's success proves both the effectiveness of its culture and the power of grassroots efforts to effect change in the face of indifference.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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