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UTIAS’s Space Flight Laboratory celebrates 25 years of successful missions and satellite projects

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A team of researchers at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) is celebrating 25 years of designing advanced micro- and nanosatellites for a broad range of missions — from scientific to commercial and government applications.   

Our laboratory engages in experimental technology research tied to real space missions,” says Professor Robert Zee, Director of the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL).   

We have many satellites under development at any given time to deliver innovative spacecraft for new and emerging applications worldwide.”  

SFL employs what Zee calls a ‘teaching-hospital’ model. This approach enables graduate students to work as apprentices designing and building low-cost satellites that are 3 to 500 kilograms in size, which are then implemented in sponsor-driven space missions with critical implications.  

Since the laboratory’s inception in 1998, SFL researchers have launched 69 distinct micro- and nano-class satellites, with 27 additional projects currently under development or awaiting launch.  

SFL has also accomplished many technological and scientific firsts during these past 25 years, including the building of Canada’s first space telescope, the MOST microsatellite. 

Commissioned by the Canadian Space Agency and designed in collaboration with Dynacon, the 53-kg MOST microsatellite was used to study brightness oscillations in solar-type stars and was responsible for many astronomical discoveries.  

SFL also built the BRITE Constellation — a fleet of six, cost-effective 7-kg nanosatellites. The mission was launched in 2013 through an equal partnership between Canada, Austria and Poland.  

“BRITE is the world’s first space astronomy constellation. It performed scientific observations, looking at the most luminous stars that you can’t view with ground-based telescopes because of the geometry of the bright stars in space,” says Zee. “So far, there have been more than 100 papers written about astronomical discoveries made through this mission.”  

The CanX-4 and CanX-5 nanosatellites, which demonstrated formation flying capability at low cost. (Photo: UTIAS/SFL)

Some of Zee’s projects make use of innovations in formation flight — that is, the coordination of multiple smaller satellites working together to accomplish the goals of a larger, more expensive satellite.  

One of the earliest were CanX-4 and CanX-5, two nanosatellites built and launched in 2014 with funding from Defence Research and Development Canada, Canadian Space Agency, MDA, Ontario Centres of Innovation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to demonstrate this capability at low cost.  

Formation flying enables many advanced sensing capabilities using smaller satellites, says Zee, from radio frequency geolocation to high-resolution imaging interferometry — an approach to measurement that uses the interference of waves, such as light, radio and sound waves. For example, fleets of satellites can increase the effective aperture for space interferometry through distributed sensing over multiple smaller satellites, instead of using one large aperture in a single big satellite. 

“Using two 7-kg spacecraft, CanX-4 and CanX-5, we demonstrated formation flying accuracies and position knowledge that could not previously be achieved at such a low price point,” he says. “This innovation enables individuals with small budgets to use formation flying in their missions.”   

In the past three decades, SFL has built a productive relationship with the Norwegian Space Agency and the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, which has led to the development and launch of seven distinct spacecraft for tracking ocean-going vessels, technology demonstration and scientific observation. The team developed Norway’s first satellite, AISSat-1, which launched in 2010 and operated in low-Earth orbit for 12 years, detecting ships and collecting messages from maritime vessels.  

In April 2023, another satellite for the Norwegian Space Agency, NorSat-TD, was launched. This 30-kg spacecraft features a new ion propulsion system, a precise positioning payload that allows for more precise position determination than traditional GPS and optical communications technology from developers across Europe.  

The satellite also features a very high frequency (VHF) data exchange system that allows two-way communication with ships. A key to making this system work was an SFL-developed deployable Yagi antenna with a deployed volume greater than the satellite itself.  

The deployable VHF Yagi antenna technology on NorSat-TD grew out of a previous collaboration with Professor Sean Hum (ECE) to develop a similar deployable VHF Yagi for the NorSat-2 microsatellite. The VHF Yagi antenna provides the gain required for two-way communication with ships.  

“Our team at UTIAS did the mechanical design and Professor Hum did the electrical and radio frequency design,” says Zee. “That was a very fruitful collaboration where we were able to mutually leverage each other’s knowledge and research to deploy something new and innovative into space for the first time globally.”   

Zee believes that the team’s continued success is due to a consistent approach that focuses on sticking to its core principles. These include understanding the environment that they are going into and developing robust designs suited to it; testing at all levels of integration, from the unit level all the way up to the system level; and being open to working with various clients without shying away from what has never been done before.  

“We have always been open to anyone needing a state-of-the-art, frontier-pushing satellite. We service the world — all sectors and all applications,” says Zee.  

“We continue to be out-of-box, non-insular thinkers, open to working in different application areas and look forward to finding new ways to push the envelope of new technologies, algorithms and techniques to expand the frontier of space for all.”

 

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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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