Half a millimetre.
That’s all that was keeping Dario Schor from getting his team to assemble UMBUG and get it ready this week for testing this at the Canadian Space Agency in Ottawa. When they had begun putting together all the components of the spacecraft, the team discovered it was a smidgen too long.
“But it’s not a major problem,” he says. “It’s just a matter of grinding down the metal end of the spacecraft.”
Designing and assembling UMBUG has been a labour of love--and lack of sleep--for the dedicated team of students and faculty advisors of the University of Manitoba Space Applications and Technology Society (UMSATS). Their creation is the University of Manitoba Biology Unimpeded by Gravity (UMBUG) satellite, about the size of a litre container of milk, and it may be destined for Earth orbit.
“This has been an exciting time at the University of Manitoba as we embark on our quest to launch the first student-designed satellite in the province of Manitoba,” says Schor, UMSATS project leader, a 27-year-old graduate student in computer engineering.
The UMBUG satellite is one of the most ambitious interdisciplinary projects at the University of Manitoba. It’s the end result of three years of work for more than 100 University of Manitoba students from a variety of disciplines, including engineering, science, management and architecture, plus some 50 advisors from academia and industry. Their impetus was an announcement in 2010 by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) about the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CSDC), a challenge for students in post-secondary institutions to design, build, and test an operational triple pico-satellite (T-Sat). The competition culminates this month, when a panel of judges tests the entries and considers their spaceworthiness and scientific value. The winning design will be launched into space within a few years. The CSDC provided students with an opportunity to expand their understanding and skills learned in their university courses through hands-on experience while designing and managing a complex project.
In the first phase, students were exposed to numerous learning opportunities that expanded their theoretical and practical knowledge as well as their communications and teamwork skills.
In Fall 2011, a panel of space mission experts from across Canada reviewed all the designs produced by Canadian university teams who chose to participate in the challenge. Following this first design review, teams from the University of Manitoba, the University of British Columbia and Carleton University emerged with the top marks. In fact, the UMSATS team held the lead in the competition throughout the design stages.
The teams refined their designs and prepared for the final design review which they presented in person before a panel in Ottawa in February 2012. Even after this stage, the University of Manitoba held the lead overall. Throughout the summer, as final design and manufacture of the satellite’s components were underway, the team’s determination was really put to the test, right down to that darned half-millimetre.
Today, as they prepare for the final judging at the CSA in Ottawa, the University of Manitoba remains one of the top three contenders, and a University of Manitoba satellite heading for space is a very real possibility.
UMBUG is designed to carry two scientific payloads. The primary payload aims to launch into space a colony of microscopic organisms called tardigrades and monitor their behaviour when exposed to the harsh space environment, to see if they can reproduce in space. If successful, this experiment will better determine the range of conditions for which we currently consider it possible for life to exist and provide valuable information about life under extreme stresses.
A second experiment is designed to learn more information about the Sun through spectroscopic observations while in orbit, obtaining spectrographic data over a broad range of frequencies. This data can then be matched to theoretical models in order to better understand the Sun and also demonstrate that spectroscopy can be conducted using small satellites instead of large structures such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
Despite its small size (a restriction forced by the cost and weight determinants of launching a satellite into space) UMBUG contains all the components necessary to control the experiments, communicate with a ground station at the University of Manitoba, provide power and control the orbit of the spacecraft.
In addition to the technical components of the mission, students needed to fundraise and solicit donations of time and materials from aerospace and other firms. The idea was to produce a real, functioning spacecraft that could conduct practical experiments in space on a minimum budget. The UMSATS team worked on promoting the mission to elementary schools, high schools and other institutions throughout Manitoba to help encourage a new generation of students to get engaged in many careers related to the space industry. The team also hosted seminars and hands-on workshops on topics such as orbit dynamics and embedded systems, not to mention dozens of presentations to schools and community groups.
In terms of fundraising, the UMSATS team needed to raise a minimum of $75,000 to support the design efforts through different prototypes and laboratory experiments, and build and assemble the satellite. They also needed to find funds to cover traveling to the David Florida Laboratories at the Canadian Space Agency’s Ottawa facilities for UMBUG to undergo tests for random vibrations, separation shock, and thermal-vacuum issues. The support they have received includes financial as well as in-kind donations of equipment or expertise as required by the team. Donors include such major corporations as Magellan Aerospace, Texas Instruments, Shell Canada, The Winnipeg Foundation, StandardAero, the Canadian Forces and the University of Manitoba.
“The long list of our generous donors, including both large and small companies, is testament to a greater community that this project is not only feasible, but worth an investment,” says Schor.
He adds: “The final six weeks of the competition have been an exciting time at the University of Manitoba as we embark on the quest to launch the first student-designed satellite in the province.”
The half-a-millimetre issue solved, the diminutive spacecraft is being assembled and prepared for transport to the Canadian Space Agency this weekend.
Fingers (and antennas) crossed.