Monday, 24 February 2014

Spaces for Innovation at UAlberta

Spaces for Innovation at UAlberta

Let’s launch a piece of the U of A into space. Not just any piece of the U of A, but an actual U of A designed, developed, and built satellite. Let’s strap it to a Tsyklon-4 rocket and let it join the small group of other university satellites that are already orbiting our planet. Seriously. Let’s do it – wait, we already are! The U of A’s AlbertaSat team (which is comprised of over 50 students and 10 faculty members) has already started the process. I had the privilege of visiting the AlbertaSat HQ which is tucked away in the enigmatic Biological Sciences building and is filled with schematics, parts, computers, and picturesque posters of space and technology. The excitement in the lab was tangible as I sat down with AlbertaSat's project manager Chris Robson. Robson is an enthusiastic mechanical engineering student who transferred from Mount Royal University to the U of A and is currently using a co-op term to build the satellite and to manage the AlbertaSat team. He couldn't wait to tell me (and you) about the project.

AlbertaSat Project
AlbertaSat Project Manager Chris Robson in his office.
Robson has been working with AlbertaSat to bring a love of space to the U of A while trying to prove that development of space technology is a worthwhile goal. “We're trying to promote satellite and space technological commercialization and education in Alberta” explains Robson,  “it would just be really cool if we had a space education program not just for engineers and scientists but for everybody. You really need to bring everybody up there.” Currently the U of A doesn't have a formal aerospace program and the AlbertaSat team aims to fill in the gap. The majority of the aerospace and space engineering programs are in Eastern Canada and the U of A community has the chance to enhance Western Canada’s contribution to the field. The work that AlbertaSat is doing represents an opportunity to add diversity to the university's academic work as well as present new commercial opportunities. “Space technology really is a higher tier of technological development that a lot of the things we do in Alberta,” he assures, “by pursuing this we can improve other industries through our research into space design.”

Building a satellite

There seems to be a resurgence of space enthusiasm in Canada with Chris Hadfield inspiring and educating new generations about the wonders of space. Robson believes that ExAlta 1 and the AlbertaSat team can tap into this enthusiasm: “I think that we could start leading the industry and leading Canada in space development. I'd like to think that that's our goal and I firmly believe and act every day like that's my goal.  I think that by doing this we're really helping the world and bringing humans closer to the stars.” 

AlbertaSat, much like Colonel Hadfield, has taken their love of space to the online world.

The size of the small cube satellite also helps to minimize the cost of construction, falling far short of the millions of dollars that are spent on most satellites. To finance this project, the AlbertaSat team has chosen to crowdfund the satellite through the USEED platform. “Crowdfunding is the perfect way to get to a global audience and to show people that this is not only worth giving towards but also something to be a part of,” Robson describes, “every person that donates becomes a part of the project and part of them is going to space.” At a time when formal institutional support is waning and the University must choose how to allocate its limited resources carefully, crowd-funding represents a unique opportunity to build something from the grassroots level. “You're able to pursue the things you're most passionate [about] right there in the primordial energy of the University” declares the enthusiastic project manager. The AlbertaSat project represents innovation in both what they are creating and how they are choosing to fund it.  The project taps into the ubiquitous enthusiasm of the U of A while providing the types of innovation that are necessary for its continued growth and prestige. As a contributor to the USEED project, you're supporting grassroots level innovation on campus but there's more to it than that. I'm totally thrilled by notion of sending a part of campus and a part of myself into space. You might even be able to have your name printed in nanoletters on the satellite! 

So, what will the satellite actually be doing while in space?

The satellite will enable the team to take high-quality measurements from a very small platform and will be used to study space weather. The goal of the team is to understand the relationship between the ionosphere and the magnetosphere that will give insight into the behaviours of solar flares. Robson explained that solar flares and space weather can have major effects on telecommunications technology, pipeline integrity, and power transmission. 

Building an Alberta satellite

Robson firmly believes that a successful project will inspire other kinds of innovation and change: “it shows the University that this is what students want and it contributes to a commercial aspect as well. The idea is that we get all these students interested in it and they go off and start their own aerospace startups here in Alberta and that helps with an industrial demand that will spur” further investmen.t In addition to building the satellite, the AlbertaSat team engages schools and presents at the Telus World of Science to reassure students and children that math and science are useful beyond the classroom. Their primary goal may be constructing a satellite but it is clear that they also have important initiatives on the ground. When asked about why students should support the AlbertaSat project and others like it, Robson answered easily: “I think it's important that students support each other in the pursuit of their dreams.”

To find out more about the project visit their website and their USEED page at:  or 

Or stay up-to-date with the project on their social media pages:


Don't forget to check out their video too!

About the Author

Hello there! I'm Trenton and I'm super excited to be a YouAlberta Student Communicator. Though I spend a staggering amount of my time thinking about a syllabus for an imaginary Batman 101 class, my major is actually Political Science. I love to read, eat, and play around in Photoshop (sometimes all at once). If you're ever looking for someone to debate about a variety of nerdy topics, I'm your man.

It is my hope to tell a wide array of stories about the sides of campus life and student life that may not be immediately apparent. In doing this, I want to showcase the diversity, passion, and community at the U of A that constantly inspires me. My time at the U of A has been truly trans-formative and, as I enter my final year here, I can't wait to listen to and tell stories about the University and its students.


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