U of S space team competing to launch satellite

An artist's rendition of a satellite designed by U of S students that could be in orbit later this year. It also may or may not be the TARDIS.

The year was 2010 at the second annual Japan Space Elevator Technology and Engineering Competition. The University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team had sent a team of people there to compete. Their goal? To build and operate a robotic “climber” that can climb up and then back down 300 metres of cable faster than any other team.

It was no small task, to say the least, and the first attempt ended with the climber crashing back to Earth. But thanks to the ingenuity of the team, they got it repaired and won the competition; their final speed was four times faster than the next team, at a cool 57 kilometres an hour.

The Space Design Team, or USST, is now hard at work on their next project, a satellite, which work began on in September 2010. This build is more advanced than the last one, as it will be orbiting more than 700 kilometres from the Earth’s surface if they succeed. The contest is the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, sponsored by Vancouver’s Geocentrix Technologies.

Eleven universities from across Canada are competing, including the U of S. The team that comes up with the best satellite design will have it launched into orbit by Geocentrix in autumn 2012. What exactly the satellite will do varies from team to team, but the U of S entry will measure variations in a layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere, which is used in radio communication. This is currently done through the use of GPS satellites, but the USST is confident their satellite will actually outperform the current multimillion dollar, military-grade GPS satellites.

For the USST, the design process is basically complete. All that is left to do is pass a “critical design review” coming up in February, when four USST members travel to Ottawa to give a presentation before a panel of experts in the field to make sure the design is space-worthy. Once that is done, there is just one obstacle remaining before it can be built and possibly launched.

As you might expect, the problem is money. As it turns out, it costs a fair bit to build a fully functioning satellite, to the tune of $200,000. For the USST, that means a lot of fundraising.

Mason Stott, the USST’s Financial Director, says recruiting will be important now. The “commerce” wing of the USST is looking for another five to 10 members (not just commerce students either) willing to spend a few hours a week raising the cash.

According to Stott, they are looking for spirited people who can spend at least five to seven hours a week contacting companies who may wish to make donations. Meetings are nightly, but volunteers are not obliged to attend each one. He described it as a unique chance to take part in a first for the U of S, going on to say that what the USST is doing now on a small budget is what NASA was doing with millions back in the 1960s.

“Success is difficult, but definitely achievable,” Stott said.

To Stott and the rest of the USST team: the future is looking bright. A for-credit course is in the works at the university that would allow students to learn about satellite design, which could help grow the team.

Currently, there are only seven astronomy courses offered by the College of Arts and Science, despite the fact that the U of S campus plays host to industry heavyweight SED Systems.

In Stott’s words, “This could be the start of aerospace at the U of S.”

(WEB) Correction: A version of this story appeared in print with the name Mason Stott spelled Mason Scott.

Image: Supplied