Witold Kinsner was distressed.
For two years, he watched 130 University of Manitoba students from 16 departments work with 50 faculty members and industry experts to design and build from scratch a research satellite. Though smaller than a loaf of bread, the satellite was designed for something big: shed light on the origin of life.
And Kinsner had just learned this ambitious, multidisciplinary undertaking—a research and learning opportunity unlike any other—tottered on the brink of ruin because a laser couldn’t shape a few sheets of aluminum needed for the satellite’s body.
“I was devastated,” Kinsner, the project’s lead faculty advisor, recalls of that incident from Spring 2012, when he heard their aluminum-cutting industry partner could no longer help with the project. “If we have no body, we have no satellite. Two years of so much effort. Two years of so much hope. So many new ideas. Suddenly the stupid cutting of metal shuts us down.”
Without a satellite, the U of M team would have nothing to bring to the inaugural Canadian Design Satellite Challenge in Ottawa, only weeks away.
Kinsner confi ded the dilemma to a friend; two days later his friend had found a solution. Kinsner assumed an industry insider was working off the books, after hours.
Nope. The most sophisticated student-led project ever undertaken at the U of M was saved by a local Hutterite colony with its own laser-cutting equipment.
A surprising development, to be sure, but to Kinsner it was just another example of the satellite’s incredible pull.
Dario Schor [BSc(CompEng)/08, MSc(CompEng)/13] was one of the 60 or so students who crammed into a Faculty of Engineering classroom in 2009 to hear Kinsner and fellow engineering professor Ron Britton talk about what was then a new satellite design challenge.
Kinsner and Britton were there to gauge student interest.
Schor was there to show his.
“They talked for five minutes and then left the room,” Schor recalls. “They basically said, ‘We’ll support you, but this is a student project and you have to be motivated to do the work— it’s going to be a lot of work over two years.’ They gave us this motivational talk and then they said, ‘You guys have to organize the structure. Talk about it amongst yourselves,’ and then they left the room.” Schor broke the silence that followed by introducing himself.
Others followed suit. And thus begun the U of M’s satellite team. They registered the University of Manitoba Space Applications and Technology Society, or UMSATS, as an official student group and Schor became its first elected leader.
“It was exciting but nerve-wracking because I had no idea what I was doing. No one did,” says Schor, now a software developer at Magellan Aerospace.
After months of reading textbooks and learning the lingo, the students began meeting with industry experts. Magellan Aerospace alone sent 15 engineers.
The students learned their preliminary blueprint had excellent individual component designs and ideas, but the system as a whole wouldn’t work: part A didn’t work with B, C was incompatible with D, and so on down the alphabet. They received guidance through the process, but weren’t spoon-fed the solutions.
“They never gave us the answers, and we didn’t want the answers from them. We wanted to keep our pride. We wanted to do this all ourselves.”
“They never gave us the answers, and we didn’t want the answers from them,” Schor says. “We wanted to keep our pride. We wanted to do this all ourselves. Some other schools bought components, but we didn’t want to do that.” Instead, the team resorted to long nights of work: pizzas got cold, Cokes got warm, solutions got found.
“This was a gold mine of an opportunity to learn,” Kinsner says. “Our students were eager to find something extra, something special, something that nobody had done.
They didn’t just want to buy something off the shelf and put it together in a few hours. That is not the real stuff. The real stuff focuses on the questions. That’s where profound learning takes place and that process has no end. Although we did have an end—it was two years away when the first deadline came.”
TSAT – 1: A Space Odyssey
The U of M team presented their preliminary design review to judges in Ottawa in September 2011. They had an hour to present, but their plan was thicker than the city’s White Pages, so they talked for five. They left the city in first place.
A few months later they returned to present their critical design review. They were supposed to show prototypes, but had none built. Instead, they presented their refined design plan. Again they left in first place.
But they were behind schedule. They needed to start building, and they had to build everything themselves.
“One night an engineer from Magellan spent four hours with us watching glue dry. Literally. We were mixing glue we had no experience with to put thin layers of glass over our solar panels,” Schor says. “And I think the guy from Magellan came because he was curious about the process. He said they would never do this themselves.”
The satellite—with the assistance of the Hutterite colony—was completed 36 hours before the competition’s final deadline. Current UMSATS president Ahmad Byagowi and fellow graduate student Pawel Glowacki [BSc(EE)/11] drove non-stop to Ottawa to deliver the satellite, TSat-1, to the team.
Flying was not an option. The satellite looks too much like a bomb.
“There was no way airport security were letting it on the plane without looking at it, and the only way we’d let them look at it was in a sterile room,” Byagowi says about the delicate piece of machinery.
So they drove 25 straight hours, eating homemade Polish sausages and listening to Polish rock music on Glowacki’s phone. They arrived just two hours before the start of the competition.
A Satellite’s Evolution
The Canadian Space Agency hosts the satellite challenge every two years, tasking student-led teams to design and build a fully-operation cube satellite—cubesat in engineering circles—that can conduct a space mission.
After years of passionately investing in the extracurricular project, the U of M team has accumulated a staggering amount of knowledge.
“If you line up all of our satellites, you can see the momentum that has built up over the years. You can see how mature our design has become,” Byagowi says.
TSat-1’s antenna was a section cut from a tape measure, wrapped around the body. It seems an odd choice, but it’s surprisingly appropriate: it’s light, flexible, inexpensive and conductive.
The antenna on the third generation TSat-3, by comparison, is a thin alloy wound up inside the satellite’s body. When instructed, hatch doors pop open and the antenna unfurls.
“That was hard for a lot of reasons and it’s stressful because it has to work. If it fails, the satellite is useless––if it can’t communicate with us on Earth, everything else won’t matter,” says Matthew Driedger [BSc(ME)/15], master’s student and mechanical team lead.
UMSATS took a giant leap forward in other systems too, creating, what the judges called, “the most elaborate and complex design for their cubesat.”
TSat-3’s solar panels unfold, capturing the energy needed to power systems that enable the team to control—in real-time—the satellite’s orientation by interacting with Earth’s magnetic field.
The satellite’s mission is even more astounding: to examine the merit of panspermia, the theory that life can travel through interstellar space to populate new worlds.
“This work is forward-looking and cutting-edge, absolutely,” says David Levin, a professor of biosystems engineering and UMSATS advisor. “It’s incredibly complex.”
UMSATS will send up two separate ecosystems supporting colonies of tardigrades. These microscopic creatures, commonly called “water bears,” can survive extraordinary extremes, like being exposed to the vacuum of outer space. They can also enter a bizarre state of dehydration that puts their life on hold. UMSATS is discovering how to control this process, running original experiments as virtually no literature on the subject exists.
Once understood, UMSATS will put the tardigrades into a deep sleep and send them into space. One chamber will reactivate its ecosystem upon entering orbit, the other a year later.
No space mission has attempted this before.
“… here I am, with all the freedom, as if I was a professor, figuring my own things out.”
“The second chamber will really shed light on panspermia. It will also shed light on if we can survive, or if we can send life to other places, because it takes a long time to travel through space. This will help us figure out if it’s possible or not,” says Viridiana Urena-Ramirez [BSc(Hons)/13], UMSATS’ biological team lead.
“What I really like about this experience,” Urena- Ramirez says, “is that I started to learn how to perform my own research and build knowledge on it and build my own focus. Sometimes as a graduate student you’re just assigned something to research. But here I am with all the freedom, as if I was a professor, figuring my own things out.”
Wings of Wax
More than any other team, UMSATS reaches for the outer edge of possibility. And they have accepted the risk this exploration carries because the challenge and thrill of being first are worth it. Their design plans are near faultless, yet in every competition, some small and previously unforeseen variable trips them and they fall.
“This year U of M had a really interesting modular design but the Achilles heel was the advanced design,” says Larry Reeves, manager of the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge.
When TSat-3 underwent the shake testing that mimics launch, the line that held the solar panels to the body severed and the panels prematurely deployed. Remarkably, the satellite still slid smoothly out of the testing canister, which means it probably would have worked after a real launch.
Nevertheless, it was a critical strike against the team.
“You have two teams neck and neck, and the judges said that if this didn’t happen they would have to roll dice or something. They had a hard time picking a winner,” Byagowi says.
For the third time, UMSATS dropped to second place because they tried for too much. Why be so risky? Is it time to question the process?
The emphatic answer from Kinsner is no.
“We’d never pull back,” he says. “We’d probably lose the best students who want this challenge. These students have sharpened their teeth–they are anticipating complex problems now and asking high-level questions.”
The better approach, says Kinsner, is to define what it means to win. “Is it to be first on paper, or to challenge yourself to the limit?”
The Eternal Lure
A satellite is a technological ecosystem that has to survive the harshest environment. This is a frontier where boldly imaginative students can excel because they are unrestrained and unencumbered by the goals and agendas of industry employers.
“They are pushing the limit a lot more,” Schor says of the new team. “They aren’t just trying to build a satellite, they are trying to push what is being done on satellites. They are looking at stuff you can buy off the shelf and asking themselves, ‘Okay, how can we make it better?’ I mean, they come up with some ideas and people tell them they’re crazy, it won’t work. But they do it.”
“I mean, they come up with some ideas and people tell them they’re crazy, it won’t work. But they do it.”
Nesta, a British think-tank, published a report in March 2016 calling for more universities to do what the U of M is doing: experiential, challenge-driven learning. It’s effective, and it’s enticing.
It attracted Marc Roy in 2015. He’s a fourth-year computer-engineering student and when he heard about UMSATS he immediately emailed Byagowi who invited him to the next meeting. By January 2016, Roy was the team lead in software communications.=
“With my coursework, it’s all about how can I memorize this or that to make my grades better. But with this, it’s about applying my knowledge, to see if I have what it takes,” Roy says. “I’m going to stick with this for as long as I can. If anything, it is making me want to slow down school because I am having so much fun.”
He’s considering graduate school now, thanks to the lure of TSat-4. If he stays, he may end up working on the product that goes to space.
On that issue, it is Kinsner who has done the final math. “One hundred per cent, we’re going to space. It’s only a matter of time; our satellite will go to space.”