A five-year project to design and build a unique satellite is just the start for UVic’s Satellite Design Club
At 3 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2022 Levente Buzás counted down the seconds until ORCASat would be released into space from the International Space Station. Buzás and the other members of the University of Victoria Satellite Design Club were gathered around a screen in the engineering building where they waited, with smiles that couldn’t be held back, for a major milestone after five years of work — the moment when the satellite that they had designed and built would be sent into orbit over 1 000 km above the Earth.
Around two hundred UVic students have contributed to the ORCASat project through the UVic Satellite Design Club (UVSD), along with a handful from UBC and SFU. Because the project was run almost entirely by volunteers, who are mostly undergraduate engineering students with full-time course loads, there were only about ten students actively involved at a time.
For UVSD members like Levente Buzás, who recently completed his masters at UVic in electrical engineering and has been a part of the UVSD since his undergraduate days, the project has been a rewarding experience.
“I’ve been interested in radio communication ever since I’ve been very young,” said Buzás. “Having been able to do all aspects of the project, like building the hardware, licensing the hardware, testing the hardware … climbing the towers to put up the antennas … gives me an unparalleled insight and background in the field.”
The ORCASat project started in 2018, when UVic’s Dr. Justin Albert and Dr. Afzal Suleman from the physics and engineering departments were experimenting with putting a laser in a weather balloon with the intention of studying how light moves through parts of our atmosphere. Their project was named ALTAIR, an acronym for Airborne Laser for Telescopic Atmospheric Interference Reduction, and the idea was that the laser would act as an artificial star, generating data that could be used to help calibrate earth-bound telescopes to correct for atmospheric distortions, allowing scientists to calculate with certainty the light emitted by astronomical objects. After multiple attempts, Suleman and Albert realized that they wouldn’t be able to get the weather balloon high enough, so they decided to try launching the technology in a satellite. They would call it ORCASat, short for Optical Reference Calibration Satellite and a gentle nod to Vancouver Island’s famous sea life.
This idea formed around the time the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was accepting applications for the Canadian CubeSat Project (CCP). The CCP awards grants to universities to design and launch a CubeSat, which is a miniature satellite. Suleman submitted an application and handed the reins over to the UVic Satellite Design Club. Professors Suleman and Albert stayed on as “project investigators,” helping out when the club was stuck on a difficult problem as well as dealing with finances and the inevitable politics of universities and space agencies. For the most part, though, this project was student led and run.
The UVSD had already gained traction back in 2008, when they won the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge with plans to build a different CubeSat, which they called EcoSat.The finances for this project, which the club had to generate on their own, fizzled out before the team could get close to a launch, unlike with ORCASat. But the experience gained by the participants was invaluable.
The main goal of the UVSD and the CCP is not to send satellites to space, but to train future space tech workers, deemed “highly qualified personnel” by space agencies. This has been successful many times over. The UVic student who led the EcoSat project, for example, went on to be the head of terrestrial space suit testing at the German Space Agency.
With a whole new team of students, the UVSD strove to take ORCASat all the way. This time around, the CSA guaranteed them a launch plus $200 000 in funding. With this money, the UVSD team could start putting thoughts into action.
“It’s one of those things where you’re super glad that you have done it,” said Buzás. “But would you do it again from the beginning? That’s a different story.” Researching, designing, and building not just a satellite, but all of the facilities, is no easy task.
They started by building new tables around the periphery of their club room, which is a small square room in the Engineering Lab Wing with blank walls and no windows. The tables are lined with boxes of materials to learn and practice with, such as circuit boards and books titled Linear Algebra and Astrophysical Concepts. One wall is covered by a whiteboard which is jotted with ideas from group brainstorming sessions. Under the whiteboard sits a small green couch, which members agree should have been thrown out a long time ago, but its comfort continues to save it from the dump. The room also features three second-hand mini fridges, which once held satellite-related materials but have now been taken over by snacks.
In the basement, next to the existing Centre for Aerospace Research, they built a cleanroom, which is where the most delicate parts of the satellite design and building process would take place. No one can enter this room without a hair net, face mask, shoe covers, and a gown, and any object that enters the room must be vacuumed for dust. The room is equipped with shelves of tools and electronics. Underneath the shelves sits a desk spanning the length of the wall. On the desk sits two ocean blue mats which eliminate dust, as well as a large microscope, a 3D printer, and a small oven bearing a striking resemblance to an Easy-Bake Oven, which works to fuse materials together. Lastly, the cleanroom has a laminar flow hood, which is the size of a large moving box but has clear walls and serves as an even cleaner space in an already clean room by running a constant flow of air over an object, keeping it sterile and dust-free.
On the top floor of the building is the ORCASat ground control station, the Radio Propagation Lab. Buzás was the manager of the lab while he worked on ORCASat as one of only two students who were part of the team since its start in 2018. UVic’s radio lab is thought to be the most advanced of any Canadian university and, like the club room and cleanroom, it was built mostly by students — from the tables to the computers to the radios. Even the fifty-foot antenna that stands on the lab’s balcony was restored and wired by students.
Club members estimate that they spent about a year researching. Albert and Suleman’s existing research from their weather balloon experiment was helpful, but putting this technology in a CubeSat, which is the size of a tissue box, required extensive trial and error. The development phase took about two years and included planning out the technical details of the satellite, which meant prototyping various systems and making decisions on key components, such as what batteries the satellite would use and how much power it would draw. They then presented these findings in a preliminary design review to the CSA, which allowed experts to tell them what they were doing right and, more importantly, what they were doing wrong. This led to what UVSD member and fourth-year electrical engineering student Biarki Weeks, who brings just as much life to a room as he does intelligence, called “ferocious thumb twiddling.” After almost two years of problem solving and progress after the preliminary design review, the group presented the CSA with a critical design review. This was similar to the preliminary design review, but much more in depth.
To save money, the club sourced many of their materials locally. The metal, for example, came from a local metal supermarket. Students also found local companies to help them with work they couldn’t do themselves, like intricate machining jobs.
“You basically take a box of donuts … and you show up to the machining shop with a flyer about the satellite and you say, ‘Hey guys, so we got this thing. What can you do for us?’ And then we hope that they will do something,” said Weeks.
Throughout the design and building process, the club had been testing each electronic subsystem, such as the battery and power system, on a unit level by using various software tools. The next step was to test the satellite out as a system. To do so, the club members built what’s called a FlatSat, which involves laying out and connecting all of the various electrical components of the satellite on a table in the cleanroom to make sure that everything runs smoothly. Condensing all of the pieces together to turn FlatSat into ORCASat would be one of their last steps.
The students also had to make sure that they would be able to communicate with the satellite once it was in space, thus the importance of the radio lab. In order to make sure that the radio system they had built for ORCASat would work, they took their radio and a small antenna to Victoria’s Pkols (Mount Douglas) and the relevant parts of ORCASat to Pkaals (Mount Tolmie) and sent a message from one mountain to the other. This test wouldn’t ensure that they would be able to communicate with the satellite once it’s deployed into orbit, but it would ensure that their system was actually working. To mimic the increased distance, they would later add attenuation, which changes the amplitude of the signal between the radio and satellite. Both of these tests proved successful, but they wouldn’t know for certain until the moment came to attempt first contact with ORCASat in space.
Another important step was ensuring that the satellite would survive the rocky flight to the International Space Station (ISS). To mimic the harsh vibrations that a rocket ship experiences during take-off, the team sent ORCASat to Ottawa, where it underwent launch simulation tests at the National Research Centre of Canada. Here, ORCASat was strapped to a shaker table and violently shaken in all directions. Thankfully, the satellite survived in perfect condition. Other than confirming that the satellite would fit in the CubeSat Deployer, this was the sole test required by the launch provider, NanoRacks, in order to fly ORCASat to the International Space Station.
When the UVSD won their grant from the Canadian Space Agency, they were also guaranteed room for ORCASat onboard a flight to space, which would be organized and paid for by the CSA. The CSA works with NanoRacks, which subcontracts room onboard rocket ships owned by large agencies like NASA and SpaceX. To fulfill this promise, the CSA bought space onboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ship, which costs around $100 000 for cargo the size of ORCASat. By the end of the project, considering all expenses, around $1 million was spent on ORCASat. The additional funding, not from the CSA’s $200 000 grant or $100 000 payment for the flight to space, came from local companies, and the federal government’s Economic Diversification Program.
In June of 2022, after reorganizing FlatSat to form ORCASat, the satellite was transported to the Kennedy Space Centre. Alex Doknjas, who was the project manager of ORCASat and an undergraduate student in electrical engineering, flew on a commercial plane from Victoria to Montreal with the satellite in his hand luggage, surrounded by soft pieces of foam. Once in Montreal, Alex went to the CSA headquarters where the satellite was handed over in a cleanroom and then placed in the NanoRacks deployer that would deploy the satellite from an arm attached to the ISS. The deployer, Buzás explained, is a spring-loaded canister just big enough to slide the satellite inside. Once in space, the satellite gets sprung out like a jack-in-the-box.
From Montreal, the CSA transported the satellite down to the Nanoracks headquarters in Houston, Texas. NanoRacks was then responsible for figuring out when NASA needed the satellite and delivering it on time, along with the required paperwork that Doknjas had delivered to the CSA when he dropped off ORCASat.
From Montreal to the Falcon 9 rocket ship at the Kennedy Space Centre, the satellite’s location was “a black hole,” said Buzás. “If you say that, ‘okay, next time when you have extra space take this along,’ … it becomes way cheaper.” Instead of spending millions of dollars to solidify a specific and timely transportation plan, the team asked the CSA and NanoRacks to transport the satellite on their clock.
Once the team got word of a launch date, Nov. 22, 2022, anticipation grew as the reality of their accomplishment began to set in. Two of the team members, Doknjas, who had transported the satellite to Montreal, and Buzás, who had been running the radio side of operations, flew down to the Kennedy Space Centre to watch the rocket carrying ORCASat launch. While there, the pair toured the space station and had the chance to meet and network with NASA and NanoRacks personnel.
Although the pair tried to give themselves some margin in case of delays, their trip came to an end before the rocket ship carrying their satellite took off since the launch was delayed due to weather.
“We couldn’t really justify staying any longer because, at the end of the day, they don’t give you any certainty, they give you a percentage. After that, it’s for you to decide whether the extra X dollars of expenditure is worth that much certainty. It’s a pretty frustrating business,” said Buzás. Despite this, Buzás still feels grateful for the experience, stating that “the launch would have just been icing on the cake.”
On Nov. 26, a few days after the pair left, ORCASat blasted into space towards the ISS on board the Falcon 9.
Even at this point, the UVSD team was still working on the project, racing to complete the work left in the radio lab. The ground station’s two antennas, essential components for contacting the satellite, had been donated by a UVic professor who had been using them for his own research for the past 30 years. This long-term exposure to the elements left parts degraded and damaged. The students took it upon themselves to repair the antennas by hand.
“It had also just decided to snow, it was -10, -15 °C and I was up on the tower trying to wire [everything],” said Buzás. “We weren’t really concerned with what was going on on the ISS at that time. If anything, we were secretly hoping that those guys would have to put [the deployment] off.”
Without a completed and functioning radio lab, there would be no way for the team to communicate with ORCASat and thus collect its data.
“It was just go, go, go, go, go,” said Weeks. “We were basically working from dawn till dusk. Sometimes even after dusk.”
By the time the antennas were fixed, rewired, and mounted, there were only two weeks until ORCASat was scheduled to deploy from the ISS.
ORCASat was deployed at 3 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2022 by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata. The live-streamed deployment, which UVSD members watched on a screen in the engineering building, was followed by a rush upstairs to the radio lab, where the students attempted to contact the satellite when it passed over Victoria for the first time, forty-five minutes after its deployment. Traveling around 7.5 km per second, ORCASat passed over Victoria five times a day and was within range of communication for five minutes each time.
As ORCASat approached Victoria, the balcony’s antennas spun to find it. Students eagerly gathered around the radio lab’s four computer screens, watching as one of the students sent a message to the satellite for the first time. Almost instantly, the computer screen pinged with a reply from ORCASat. The room filled with cheers, laughs, and claps as the team rejoiced. This was the moment that they had worked towards for almost five years. The night ended with a champagne toast on the radio lab’s balcony, under the stars and the towering antennas.
“To ORCASat,” the team said in unison, as they clinked their glasses.
The successful contact between the radio lab and ORCASat marked the start of the next phase of the mission. Once the satellite was deployed, it began supplying data, which was collected and analyzed. The team appointed an undergraduate co-op student from engineering, Ty Ellison, who worked as the second paid team member, along with Buzás, to communicate with the satellite as it passed overhead.
Ellison accessed the system’s software remotely, which allowed him to work from home and take naps in between night time passes. His homemade computer sat on a desk in his living room next to a large screen where he simultaneously watched a livestream of the radio lab’s antennas, ORCASat’s location on a world map, his Google Doc of tasks for the night, and a screen of computer codes ready to be copied and pasted into the communication software during the quick five minutes which the satellite was in reach. A CrockPot simmered on the counter behind him and music played in the background as he waited for the first pass of the night.
“Pros of working from home,” Ellison said, grabbing a drink from his fridge and cracking it open. A bright red error-code came up on his screen as he took a sip. “That’s not good,” he said. “I have to restart the computer.” With just a minute before the first pass, he restarted his computer, reopening his many screens and typing in long passwords to gain access to the radio lab’s remote servers. During the few minutes that this task takes, the song “Midnight Rider” by The Allman Brothers Band played from Ellison’s speaker. Just as the satellite was about to leave the zone of communication, Ellison was able to send it a command and collect the most important data from the pass. He then placed the data into a Google Doc, where other students would dissect the long lines of numbers and letters into useful information for Albert’s research on the expansion of the universe and dark energy.
“We’re not in the business of doing hard science,” said Buzás later, speaking of the UVSD team of engineers.
“That’s something we’re woefully unqualified to research,” laughed Weeks.
What the team hoped to accomplish is proof of concept. The ORCASat mission could be performed on a bigger scale by a space agency that has access to millions of dollars. That’s the benefit of CubeSat missions in general, other than the main goal of training Canada’s next generation of space professionals.
On July 7, 2023, after slowly falling lower and lower in its orbit since deployment, ORCASat was likely incinerated by our atmosphere as it lost contact with Earth.
“It’s been a really awesome and unique experience to get to build this and be a part of it,” said Buzás. “We have gotten a lot out of it and I’m very happy with how things went.
He noted that the end of ORCASat won’t stop activity in the radio lab or in the club. The radio lab that UVSD built can now be used by UVic students and professors. With the radio set-up that Buzás and the rest of the team built, they’re able to contact dozens of satellites. They can even contact the ISS, which they’ve tried doing, hoping that the astronauts would answer “just for shits and giggles,” Buzás said. They have yet to hear back.
Even though the ORCASat project has come to an end, the UVSD club room won’t be empty for long, as the group has been awarded $350 000 from the CSA for a new satellite project. The satellite, which has yet to be named, will collect data which will help UVic professors with their research of the composition of the ionosphere and finding a correlation between the ionosphere and natural events, such as earthquakes. The UVSD will work in collaboration with the UVic Centre for Aerospace Research as well as with the geography, physics, and electrical engineering departments. It’s estimated that the project will take two years.
“It’s going to be bigger, better, bolder,” said Weeks, holding back a smile.