A small rectangular box about the size of a milk carton is one giant leap closer to becoming Alberta’s first homegrown space traveller.

Dubbed AlbertaSat, the student-led project is at the leading edge of a trend that could soon see every Canadian province and territory sending its own tiny satellite into orbit.

Last week, AlbertaSat survived a gruelling two-day round of shaking at a test facility near Calgary that was designed to mimic the bone-jarring vibrations of a launch.

With that hurdle cleared, team leaders say their satellite is ready to leave Canada for good on a voyage that will culminate later this year when it springs out of the International Space Station like a piece of candy from an orbiting Pez dispenser.

“We know that it works. We know that it will survive,” said Charles Nokes, AlbertaSat’s project manager, who last month completed his undergraduate degree in engineering physics at the University of Alberta while working on the spacecraft in his spare time. Dozens of other students have participated in the project over the past three years.

Measuring just 10 x 10 x 34 centimetres, the device they have created is a type of CubeSat – a miniature spacecraft that follows a generic design first developed in 1999 to enable more people, especially students, to try their hand at satellite building.

It is now set to become one of 40 university-built CubeSats currently scheduled to fly on an unmanned Orbital Sciences capsule when it ferries supplies to the space station in late December. From there, the satellites will be loaded into a mechanical deployer that will pump them out from the space station, one after another, so that they can begin circling the globe on their own separate trajectories.

The effort is part of a larger Europe-based project called QB50. Although each is unique, the satellites will all carry one of three standard instruments so that the data they gather in orbit can be combined and compared.

To fulfill its part, AlbertaSat is designed to sprout four long metal rods that will allow it to make precision measurements of electrically charged particles in Earth’s magnetic field. As a secondary task, it will test a miniature magnetometer designed at the University of Alberta.

But AlbertaSat’s journey to the final frontier has not been a smooth one. Two years ago, team members had to rethink their design from the bottom up when problems emerged. Last year, they had to accommodate much stricter engineering requirements when it became clear that AlbertaSat would be travelling to the space station and handled by astronauts rather than launching off an unmanned rocket. There have been other surprises and glitches, too, such as components not working as expected or parts not fitting together as planned.

Those closest to the project said they acquired skills and faced obstacles along the way that they did not expect to encounter until they were years into an advanced degree or already working in the aerospace industry.

“There’s so much to know, so many things to check and check again,” said Collin Cupido, who, like Mr. Nokes, has already graduated but will stay with the project until AlbertaSat is launched. “And if you mess up, you don’t just get a lower grade – your satellite doesn’t work.”

A second Canadian team, based at York University in Toronto, is also working to have a CubeSat ready to fly as part of the QB50 project.

Regina Lee, who heads York’s nanosatellite laboratory, said that smaller, cheaper electronics and off-the-shelf components that can handle the rigours of the space environment have opened the door for a new generation of aspiring satellite builders.

She compared the change to what occurred in the 1970s and 80s, when universities shifted from using large mainframe computers housed at a few institutions to inexpensive desktop processors. The result, she said, will be equally transformative.

The University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies has involved graduate students in the development of small satellites for years, but the next wave could soon see the activity spreading to campuses across the country.

Alex MacDonald, a senior economic adviser with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, based in Washington, said the student satellite boom is part of “a second space age.”

“There are a lot more opportunities for the democratization of space access and direct engagement in spaceflight,” he said.

Dr. MacDonald is involved in a NASA initiative that aims to launch 50 CubeSats – one from each state in the U.S. – in the next few years. Last February, at a small satellite symposium in Toronto, he suggested in a presentation that Canada could do something similar as a way to broaden its aerospace community and grab a piece of the miniaturization revolution.

Now it appears that the Canadian Space Agency has taken up the idea. The agency has unofficially made known that in the near future, it will be asking for letters of intent from postsecondary institutions, representing different provinces and territories across Canada, with the goal of helping them to launch their own CubeSats.

Dr. Lee said students who work on such projects are also likely to improve their employment prospects. “The space industry is looking for skilled people with hands-on experience,” she said.

Mr. Nokes said working on AlbertaSat has already reshaped his career plans. Together with Mr. Cupido and other AlbertaSat team members, he has started a company that he hopes will become part of a growing space sector in Alberta. As they prepare to take AlbertaSat through its final steps on the way to liftoff, the team members have started to look ahead to future projects.

“We’re not in space yet, but we’ve demonstrated that we can do this,” Mr. Nokes said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 24, 2016 8:07PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Jul. 24, 2016 8:08PM EDT