University of Victoria wins latest Canadian satellite design challenge

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MONTREAL - Justin Curran still remembers sleeping under a blanket decorated like a rocket ship when he was a child.

"It looked like the inside of a space shuttle with a joystick and all the switches and knobs," the 28-year-old recalls as he recounts his fascination with space. Planets could be seen through windows printed on the quilt-like fabric.

While he may have dreamed of the cosmos while under that blanket, which he still owns, Curran is a little closer to one day travelling into space and living on Mars and the moon thanks to a national competition.

The University of Victoria student is the chief engineer on a team from the B.C. university which recently won the second Canadian Satellite Design Challenge.

The University of Victoria group built a small shoebox-sized satellite from scratch with contributions from sponsors and about $24,000 in university funding.

Curran said a team of about 20 students worked on the final build and testing of the satellite, but they weren't alone.

"It's been a multi-year project so we've had dozens and dozens of people put their hands on the project and work on it over time," he noted.

The latest satellite challenge involved teams of students from 10 universities across Canada.

One team from Montreal's Ecole polytechnique partnered with students from the University of Bologna in Italy.

Satellites from six teams made it to the final stage of vibration tests which were carried out on the Canadian Space Agency's David Florida Laboratory in Ottawa.

The tests simulate the vibrations satellites experience during a launch.

Curran says he always felt confident the University of Victoria team would win.

"We had a pretty good feeling right off the bat," he said. "We knew the other teams had difficulties . . . but it's one of those things where you don't want to count your chickens before they're hatched."

The founder of the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge is Larry Reeves, who works at Urthecast, which developed special cameras for the International Space Station.

He says the University of Victoria's winning satellite, which measures 34 centimetres by 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres, also contains several experiments.

"They have a number of little experiments, including an Earth observation camera, on board," Reeves said in an interview.

The satellite has an experiment which uses a new type of material that's a good heat conductor.

"It's much lighter and much more efficient at conducting heat than copper pipes which are often used for radiators right now in satellites," Reeves explained.

Another experiment involves a material that can be used to manipulate the satellite using magnetic fields.

"We found that you can actually alter the magnetic field using lasers," Curran noted.

He said the material, a type of graphite, could eventually be used to "sail" on magnetic currents between planets and other galaxies.

Reeves says the satellite will eventually be launched into orbit to conduct scientific research and monitored from a ground station at the university.

"There are some options that I can't mention until it actually happens," Reeves said.

In the meantime, the team hopes to make a few improvements to the satellite. It also has to provide documentation to the launch providers.

"There's still a lot of red tape to get through," Curran added.

The satellite, with a projected lifespan of three to five years, could be launched by a number of countries including Russia, India or China.

Montreal's Concordia University won the first design challenge in 2013 and its satellite was accepted into a European Space Agency program.

But the Montreal team is still waiting for date to get it launched into space.

Follow @Peter_R_Space on Twitter

Organizations: University of Victoria, B.C. university, University of Bologna Canadian Space Agency David Florida Laboratory International Space Station Concordia University European Space Agency

Geographic location: MONTREAL, Mars, Canada Italy Ottawa Russia India China

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