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Physics professor reflects on a year of space research at the U of A

While some undergrads were cramming for finals in Rutherford, others were at the Kennedy Space Centre watching the satellite they helped build launch towards the International Space Station.

The University of Alberta has plenty to brag about this year with the launch of the first Alberta-made satellite back in April, and the continuation of its partnership in rocket research with Norwegian universities. Ian Mann, a physics professor and the Canada Research Chair in Space Physics from 2003-2013, has seen firsthand the university’s achievements in space research this year.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Mann said. “But, I would say that the University of Alberta has made Canadian aerospace history.”

For over four years, undergraduate and graduate students worked alongside faculty to create Alberta’s first CubeSat satellite: the Experimental Alberta 1, or ExAlta1. Constructed here on campus by the AlbertaSat team, the satellite was made to collect and deliver data on space weather patterns and examine how the space environment is driven by activity coming from the sun.

The AlbertaSat team partnered with QB50, a European-funded program that aims to bring together universities from around the world to launch what ended up being 40 miniaturized satellites, or CubeSats, into orbit. The ExAlta is the Canadian contribution to this constellation.

The satellites launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 18 to the International Space Station. Some of the students and faculty involved in the construction of the satellite even went down to watch the launch. On May 26, the date the Ex-Alta 1 was ejected into space from the International Space Station alongside the other QB50 satellites, a group of students and faculty watched the live launch from the University’s observatory.

“You can imagine this feeling,” Mann said. “All these years of work being suddenly launched out, you’re just hoping it’ll all go well… (The International Space Station) is the brightest thing in the sky with the solar panel’s glint, flying over the top of Edmonton. A beautiful sight. But at the same time, we knew flying right beside it at the same speed was our own spacecraft.”

Now, the AlbertaSat team is activating the scientific systems on the satellite. This data will be shared with the rest of the teams working on the QB50 project.

“We collect data from the different space crafts and they’ll be making scientific discoveries in collaboration with other students from all around the world,” Mann said. “What a fantastic vision for collaborative science.”

In addition to their collaboration with QB50, the U of A has continued sending students for the ninth year to the Canada-Norway Student’s Sounding Rocket Exchange Program. Where, for a week, students go through as Dr. Mann calls it, “Rocket Boot Camp” where they learn about space science and engineering.

With World Space Week coming up, the university has a lot planned. Headlining the event is Colonel Chris Hadfield, who will be delivering a talk at the Jubilee Auditorium on October 1. The week’s events are being organized by the university’s Institute for Science, Exploration, and Technology an organization on campus which aims to create cross-disciplinary opportunities for space exploration.

The 2017 space exploration symposium will be taking place on October 4 and 5 with keynote speakers including Conor Brown, Senior Mission Manager for Nanoracks LLD, and Harry McSween, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Planetary Geoscience, at the University of Tennessee. Mann said the U of A space research community is looking forward to World Space Week as a chance to share the campus’ achievements this year.

As part of this drive for further research and innovation into space exploration, the AlbertaSat team is already looking at the potential for creating an ExAlta 2, this time to observe earth and forest fire risk and development. The university is also looking at potentially creating an open-source satellite to encourage those interested in space technology to understand and improve satellite technology.

The goal is ultimately to make space easier to use not just to the benefit of Canadians but for all of humanity on this planet,” Mann said.

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