Liftoff: University of Alberta satellite rockets into orbit

With an explosion of rocket fuel and plume of smoke, a tiny satellite made by a group of Edmonton students has begun its journey, while propelling Alberta into the space industry.

The Ex-Alta 1 — the first-ever made-in-Alberta satellite — launched from NASA's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The satellite, no larger than a bread box, will soon orbit Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometres.

'The excitement is really high'

"The excitement is really high," said Charles Nokes, a University of Alberta masters student in space physics who has been working on the satellite since he was an undergraduate in 2013.

"It's going to be quite the event."

Designed by a team of students and faculty members at the U of A over the past four years, the spacecraft will record space weather data.

With a design that allows for high-frequency measurements of the Earth's magnetosphere and thermosphere, the satellite will help the team study powerful forces, such as solar flares, which can threaten spacecraft, satellites, and essential electronic networks on Earth, Nokes said.

Measurements will be transmitted to the rooftop ground station located at the U of A which is operated by the AlbertaSat team and shared with other research hubs around the globe.

"On the ground, we have weather stations all over the place. We can track hurricanes with really, really high precision and really get an understanding of what the effect is," Nokes said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM, an hour before liftoff.

"But we really don't have that capacity with space weather yet so this is leading toward a more in-depth understanding." The satellite hitched a ride on the Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft launched aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket which will deliver several tons of cargo including crew supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station.

The Ex-Alta 1 is among dozens of other little satellites from other teams that are part of the QB50 research mission. Fifty cube satellites built by university students from 28 countries were deployed Tuesday. 

It's part of what makes these small spacecraft so effective, said Nokes.

Typically, satellites are heavy, expensive and unable to operate in low orbit. Cube satellites, however, are lightweight, inexpensive to build, and can be launched in "swarms."

The satellite will remain in orbit for up to two years, but it will eventually perish in the harsh conditions.

"That's what's really unique and awesome about this new form of spacecraft, these cube satellites, they're very small and a lot cheaper and a lot faster to build and launch into space," said Nokes.

"You can put them in regions of space where you wouldn't launch larger and more expensive satellites because it makes no sense, economically to put a $500 million satellite into lower orbit to have burn up a few months later."