West Kootenay-raised engineering student sets sights on the stars

As a youth growing up in Kaslo, Biarki Weeks used to gaze up into the dark Kootenay night sky and wonder about the stars.

Now, the third-year University of Victoria electrical engineering student is looking forward to a career with one foot in space.

“I definitely see this as a career path for myself,” he says. “As someone who has always wanted to get into this industry, as someone who grew up in Kaslo, it’s very exciting to be on the trajectory towards that.”

Weeks, 27, will be watching closely in November when a SpaceX rocket blasts off to rendezvous with the International Space Station. Onboard the Dragon capsule will be a small, milk-carton-sized satellite built by the University of Victoria, called a cubesat.

“It will be surreal and awesome,” Weeks told the Valley Voice. “While I have not had much of a hand in the building of this satellite, I have been involved in a project that is going to space, and as a space nerd, I couldn't be more excited.”

ORCASat’s mission

The satellite – known as ORCASat (for Optical Reference Calibration Satellite) will orbit the planet for up to two years, and the UVic team hopes it will help astronomers unlock some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. It will do that by providing a reliable ‘yardstick’ for scientists measuring the brightness of stars.

“Ground-based telescopes measure how bright astronomical objects appear to be, not how bright they actually are,” explains the ORCASat website. “When observing astronomical objects, the light that is measured passes through the atmosphere and the optics of the telescope.”

How the atmosphere affects the light affects the apparent brightness of distant stars. Since astronomers use that brightness to estimate the distance of objects in the universe, it’s important for them to be able to quantify how the atmosphere is affecting their readings.

ORCASat is essentially a beacon in orbit, with a known brightness. Observatories can focus in on the tiny satellite’s laser light, and get a better sense of just how atmospheric dust, chemicals and water vapour are affecting what they see. That gives them a way to be more precise in their measurements.

Two major observatories have already signed on to calibrate their instruments with ORCASat, with more expected to follow.

Student activities

Weeks first got involved with ORCASat before the pandemic, through a campus engineering club. It was early on in the design and construction stage of the satellite, and Weeks did some preliminary work on electrical sub-systems.

“I began work on some intro projects, proved that I could do stuff and was reliable, then got given some more projects,” he recalls. Unfortunately, the pandemic got in the way of him continuing with ORCASat, and he didn’t take part in its final construction. But since returning to the project, he has helped get infrastructure ready to support the cubesat after it launches. He became the undergrad technical lead last spring, but with ORCASat pretty much launch-ready, he’s focused on building the ground station that will communicate directly with the cubesat.

ORCASat has given Weeks a taste of the kind of career he could have in aerospace electrical engineering, and he’s hooked. He’s been heavily involved in UVic’s next cubesat project.

“We’re working on an earth-imaging satellite for the Canadian Cubesat Design Challenge,” he says. “We’re also hoping to win a grant to build another satellite to send to space in the not-too-distant future.”

It’s Weeks’ biggest project to date.

“I’m leading the project, for all intents and purposes,” he says. “As technical lead, I basically define the parameters each sub-system has to follow. I make sure we are able to send data, let’s say, or that our power systems are producing enough power, and that our attitude control system has enough pointing accuracy and stability to be able to operate the payload and maintain the orientation of the satellite… it goes on.

“I make sure everybody is talking to everybody, so I’m kind of the centre point of all of those teams.”

Weeks says the experience has been a phenomenal one, and he can’t wait to see how ORCASat does in orbit. And he wants students at his high school alma mater, JV Humphries in Kaslo, to know that they can accomplish anything from where they are now.

“Just because you grew up in the middle of nowhere doesn't mean you can't do these sorts of awesome things,” he says. “The things I get to do on a daily basis now I could only dream of in high school. Just work hard and chase the opportunities that interest you. You never know where they may lead.”

You can find out more about the ORCASat project by visiting its website, https://www.orcasat.ca.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice