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UVic’s first satellite launch delayed by stormy weather

Project four years in the making will help telescopes measure the brightness of stars with greater accuracy

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 24, 2022
Science
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

UVic’s first satellite launch delayed by stormy weather

Project four years in the making will help telescopes measure the brightness of stars with greater accuracy

Tristan Tarnowski, ORCASat team member and UVic engineering student, during assembly of the UVic satellite. Photo: Provided by ORCASAT.
Tristan Tarnowski, ORCASat team member and UVic engineering student, during assembly of the UVic satellite. Photo: Provided by ORCASAT.
Science
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

UVic’s first satellite launch delayed by stormy weather

Project four years in the making will help telescopes measure the brightness of stars with greater accuracy

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 24, 2022
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UVic’s first satellite launch delayed by stormy weather
Tristan Tarnowski, ORCASat team member and UVic engineering student, during assembly of the UVic satellite. Photo: Provided by ORCASAT.

Minutes before a rocket was scheduled to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre on Tuesday, NASA pulled the plug. Launching a rocket in the rainy and cloudy conditions the region was experiencing could cause dangerous lightning, they said. 

For recent UVic engineering grad Alex Doknjas, this was the fourth cancelled launch he’d witnessed during his week in Florida. He, along with a colleague from UVic’s ORCASat project, travelled down to deliver their mini satellite and watch as it was sent into space. Over the past four years, the team of students and advisors designed, built, and tested the milk-carton sized satellite, which will help ground-based telescopes more precisely measure the brightness of stars and supernovae. 

The satellite, carrying two lasers and a variety of sensors, will emit a reference light as it orbits. Astronomers on Earth will be able to measure the amount of light they see from the satellite through their telescopes and compare it to the actual amount of light emitted. That difference will help them calculate the brightness of other objects in space, which lose a (currently unknown) amount of brightness as their light passes through the atmosphere.

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This project is a major milestone for the university as its first satellite to be launched into space—when the weather cooperates, that is.

It was first scheduled to go up last Thursday, but the launch was pushed back by a day, then to Monday, then Tuesday. It’s now set to be on board the SpaceX cargo resupply craft on Saturday; and if that launch is cancelled, then hopefully the Sunday launch is a go.

“It’s been a long time coming, and it kind of doesn’t feel real,” Doknjas, the ORCASat project manager, said on Wednesday from Florida. “Handing it off to the launch provider was a pretty surreal moment. I’m just very happy. I’m also very proud of our team.”

The ORCASat project started in earnest in 2018 after the team was one of 15 selected by the Canadian Space Agency to receive funding through the Canadian CubeSat Project. It was later one of just two projects to get the funding to launch their satellites into space. Throughout the past four years, more than 50 students from UVic, UBC, and Simon Fraser University have been involved in some way to make the project a reality. 

“Turns out none of us had built a satellite before, so we had to figure out how to do that,” Doknjas laughed. 

More than 50 people have been involved in creating the ORCASat satellite since 2018. Photo ORCASat / submitted

BC isn’t known for its space industry, Doknjas said, so there isn’t an abundance of local aerospace expertise. The idea for the project came from a conversation with a UVic professor, but the designing of the satellite was entirely done through research and trial-and-error—and some help from advisors in the industry when the team got really stuck. 

Doknjas said there was an option to just buy a premade satellite and add in customized payloads, or purchase assembled parts to make the task easier, cheaper, and quicker. But the ORCASat team decided instead to build everything themselves. They even built the lab.

“We figured out how to basically build all the test rigs that we would need. We built our radio ground station so we could talk to it,” Doknjas said. “The hardest part of the project was just the sheer scale…All of us are novices, none of us have experience, and getting started was probably the most challenging part.”

The ORCASat satellite is roughly the size of a two-litre milk carton and is equipped with two lasers to shine a light down to Earth. Photo: ORCASat / submitted

For the past year, the team was in the manufacturing, assembly, and testing stage. Volunteers worked to recreate the space environment on the ground, testing how the satellite performed in a vacuum and in extreme temperatures. They also had to make sure it wouldn’t break under the pressures and violent vibrations of take off. And the testing exposed a lot of the satellite’s weaknesses that they had to work to fix. 

“Once you put it onto a rocket, and it gets launched into space, you can never touch it ever again—it’s in space,” Doknjas said. “So if it stops working or you have an issue with it, there isn’t really anything you can do.”

Typically satellites are sent up in a rocket directly into orbit, but the small ORCASat satellite is getting sent up to the International Space Station first as cargo on board a resupply rocket. After it reaches the station, an astronaut will put the satellite onto a robotic arm, which will carry it out into the vacuum of space and push it into orbit. 

There it will stay for 18 months. Doknjas says the UVic team will be able to communicate with the satellite from their custom-built radio ground station where they will collect data and pass it on to scientists. 

“We’ll be anxiously awaiting that to happen, to talk to it and see if…what we all spent four years building actually works,” he said. “I’m very confident actually that it will work, but we still don’t know.”

With all the work that went into building the lab, ground station, and knowledge base, the project has created an incredible resource for satellite creation locally, Doknjas says.

“Future students can have an easier time getting started and building bigger and better satellites,” he said. “So I think that the next step is just keep it going and build another one.”

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UVic’s first satellite launch delayed by stormy weather
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