Microsatellite licence is a Canadian first for York

Above: From left, Professor George Zhu with engineering students Adrian Vasilescu, Dwaraga Dushyanthan, Sucheta Sikdar, Aparna Vishnubhotla and Navjeet Sara

Students in York’s Space Engineering Program will now be able to get hands-on experience building state-of-the-art microsatellites, thanks to a licence agreement between York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the first of its kind in Canada.

George Zhu, professor and Space Engineering Program director in York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, approached visiting representatives of the CSA during a presentation at York’s Keele campus in March where his students showed a keen interest in the QuickSat, a Canadian-designed microsatellite intended for Earth-observation applications. He visited the CSA’s offices in Longueuil, Que., in May and negotiations between York, represented by Zhu and Michael Siu, associate vice-president research, science & technology, and the CSA continued throughout the summer. The final agreement was concluded last week.

“York is the first Canadian university licensed by CSA to receive the technology for its undergraduate educational program,” said Zhu.

The non-exclusive licence covers educational uses only and includes high-level technical drawings and specifications of the microsatellite. Thanks to York’s efforts, other universities could also apply for this licence. Commercial rights to specific details, such as the design and specifications of sub-assemblies containing items like circuit boards and instruments, are held by two Canadian private-sector companies and are not included in the agreement. Among the information included in the licence is the engineering budget of key details, such as how much power is available to designers for the devices they hope the satellite will carry and how heavy they can be.

The agreement affects about 31 students in two fourth-year design courses, taught by Zhu and his colleague Yunlong Lin, lecturer of space engineering , and will allow students to build a full-size structural model in the Space-Engineering Lab in the lower level of Petrie Science & Engineering Building.

Right: QuickSat microsatellite

“This is a first. The CSA’s mandate is to help in capacity building, said Gilles Brassard, CSA’s interim director of spacecraft payload. “Our interest is to help universities and sponsor the training of undergraduate students as more expert designers. It is beneficial to Canada, the agency and to the space industry.”

“This is a major step in the development of York’s Space Engineering Program that will give students the opportunity for hands-on experience,” said Zhu, who Brassard credited with championing the idea for the agreement. “Up to now, they have only been able to do paper designs. Now they are building a structural model and power supply.”

York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering has allocated $10,000 from the Academic Equipment Fund to assist students in building the model and its payload module.

The QuickSat measures 460 x 460 x 650 millimetres and weighs 85 kilograms. It is designed to fly in a sun-synchronous, low-Earth orbit at an altitude of between 650 and 800 kilometres for up to two years. The microsatellite is designed as a generic multi-purpose space vehicle that can carry equipment for monitoring Earth’s atmosphere, a specialty at York, which has participated in many similar missions over the years.

Having the drawings and specifications for the microsatellite gives students like Navjeet Sarai a chance to build something instead of just designing it on paper. Which is why they became engineering students in the first place. “For sure,” said Sarai, a computer engineering student taking part in the project, “we’re building something that we’d be sending into space and it combines several different branches of science: space, electronics and software design.”

Students like Dwaraga Dushyanthan are excited about building the structural model because they are planning careers in the field but even those interested in other fields say the agreement will be a real help to them too. Being able to build a satellite from the QuickSat plans and working within the constraints dictated by its size and capabilities will improve their basic skills as engineers, said student Aparna Vishnubhotla.

Brassard said the CSA often visits university campuses for student design presentations, looking for new ideas worthy of further discussion and development. “They could have other solutions to design problems,” said Brassard.