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U of M researchers patiently await launch of first satellite into space

Researchers at the University of Manitoba’s Price Faculty of Engineering are patiently awaiting the launch of the school’s first ever satellite into space.

A team of faculty and students at the U of M have spent the last few years building a CubeSat, a new standard in building satellites. The satellite is made up of ten-centimetre cubes, each about the size of a Rubik’s Cube. The entire U of M CubeSat - named Iris - is about the same size as a milk carton.

“The whole idea here is to improve access to space,” said associate professor Philip Ferguson. “We can do that by using less expensive parts and by using sometimes students to build the spacecraft, and at the same time teach people about space systems engineering, space science, geology. It’s a great tool for many different uses.”

Ferguson said their CubeSat cost less than $50,000 to build, as opposed to the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs for a traditional satellite.

The CubeSat movement began in the early 2000s at Stanford University. The Canadian Space Agency began its own CubeSat program in 2018.  As part of the program’s first edition, 15 universities across Canada received funding to build their own CubeSat and program it.

Iris will be taking pictures of rocks in orbit to find out how they react to space weather.

“Everything from cosmic radiation, to micrometeoroids, to atomic oxygen,” said Ferguson. “We think that there’s a whole lot of nothing in space, but really there’s quite a lot of things going on space that changes the way things look to us.”

Ferguson said the experiment results will tell them more about how to interpret images and samples collected from space.

“These kinds of things weren’t possible before the CubeSat movement just because nobody could afford to get something in space,” he added.

The team has already started on their next CubeSat, working with Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut to design a satellite to study ice thicknesses in Hudson’s Bay.

After the original launch planned for Saturday was scrapped due to high winds, a re-scheduled launch for Sunday was also postponed.

SpaceX will try again to launch its Falcon 9 rocket with Iris on board Monday at noon.

Once the cargo arrives at the International Space station, Ferguson said it could take more than a month before the astronauts actually deploy Iris.

“I’m told amongst our spacecraft is a new solar array for the space station, and a bunch of fruit for the astronauts,” Ferguson said. “I’m assuming the astronauts will want to indulge in some fresh fruit, but eventually they will get to unpacking our CubeSat.”

The satellite will be launched into orbit 400 km above the Earth’s surface. Once activated, it will send its data back to the U of M campus for about two years.

“At that altitude, things usually only last a few years before the atmosphere pulls it back to earth and it burns up,” said Ferguson.

Despite the weekend’s launch postponement, Ferguson is excited for Iris to get into orbit and get to work. He said it’s a great day for Manitoba.

“We’re a hub of aerospace engineering and space research here in Manitoba, and we’re looking to do more of it in the years to come.” Top Stories

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