First made-in-Alberta satellite gets grounded — again

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First made-in-Alberta satellite gets grounded — again

The fate of a University of Alberta satellite is up in the air, but not in the way students involved in the project would like.

The launch of the AlbertaSat team's Ex-Alta 1 satellite had originally been scheduled for March 16, then March 19, and then March 24. Now it's been delayed indefinitely.

"Right now the satellite is sitting inside of a capsule on top of the Atlas V rocket in Florida at Cape Canaveral, waiting to launch to the International Space Station," said project manager Charles Nokes.

There's a reason the old saying "it's not rocket science" is used to describe a simple task.

"Rocket science is really difficult, so the rocket company has to make sure everything is working absolutely perfectly," said Nokes. "There's been a couple of issues that were identified with the rocket over the last couple of weeks that have caused the launch to be pushed back."

That means Nokes and his AlbertaSat team must wait patiently while the Ex-Alta 1, five years in the making, sits on the launch pad.

"We're just sitting here going along for the ride," said Nokes. "It's a little bit bumpy right now."  

First stop: International Space Station

Still, he remains confident the satellite will soon be floating through space, primarily because the Atlas V rocket is also carrying supplies to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

"It's at the point where it's going to the International Space Station," he said. "It's in there with all the other supplies so that's very exciting."

"They need their food, they need their water. We're in there with them so it's going — definitely," Nokes said. "In the space industry, we have a saying as far as rocket launches go: You know you're getting closer to launch the more times it gets delayed and the shorter those delays are."

Nokes and his team members planned to travel to Florida to watch the launch in person, but cancelled launches mean cancelled flights.

"There's about a dozen of us planning to go," he said. "We've had to cancel our flights twice now but we're really eager to go and see it so we're doing everything we can."

After its visit to the International Space Station, the bread box-sized satellite will be sent on its way, tasked with tracking space weather and specifically the interactions between the sun and the Earth. The findings will be beamed back to antennae across the globe, including one that now sits atop one of the buildings on the U of A campus.

Eventually the $150,000 satellite will burn up in the atmosphere, according to Nokes. Much of that price tag was covered by crowdfunding and the team has included a little something for those who donated.

"We had nearly 1,000 different funding supporters and so what we did is we put names of a large number of these donors onto a little, tiny microchip and this microchip is sitting on the satellite," said Nokes.

"So we're taking them with us, on the rocket to the space station, into space, and then all together we're going to burn up in the atmosphere."

Birth of an industry

The launch of Alberta's first satellite into space also marks what could be the launch of a new industry here. In a province that has often earned its revenues from what's beneath us, Nokes and his team members are hoping to start an industry that looks to the skies instead.

"Some of the senior members of AlbertaSat, which built the Ex-Alta 1 spacecraft, have formed a company called Promethean Labs," said the company's systems lead Collin Cupido.

"The idea there is to take photographs from space that have not been taken before by any company, and provide them to companies in Canada, companies around the world, to governments — anybody who needs to know this information on a commercial basis."

Nokes says he hopes the satellite will serve as a draw for potential students.

"It's having an impact on future students and essentially on the province in such a way that future space enthusiasts can get into the space industry here in Alberta and really develop a space industry right here."