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Ukpik-1 microsatellite designed, developed and tested by students at Western University.WEN BO

Canada’s expertise in space exploration has long been recognized through high-profile projects such as the Canadarm program, a series of robotic arms used on the space shuttle orbiters to deploy, manoeuvre and capture payloads. Now, two new homegrown innovations are set to further raise the country’s space science standing.

Western University is a major player for the first-ever made-in-Canada lunar rover, which is being developed by Canadensys Aerospace Corporation for the Canadian Space Agency.

In November 2022, Canadensys and its partners were selected by the Government of Canada to build the new lunar rover and develop the Canadian payloads. Western planetary geologist Gordon “Oz” Osinski was chosen by Canadensys to lead the science team.

Dr. Osinski’s work will involve co-ordinating the science team, developing the overall science plan for the mission, working with the various institutions to finalize the development of their instruments, and analyzing satellite data from the Moon to identify potential landing sites for this upcoming uncrewed mission.

“This is a hugely exciting project,” says Dr. Osinski. “It’s Canada’s first-ever rover mission anywhere in the solar system. In the past, Canada has had some involvement in, for example, the Curiosity rover on Mars, but we were a very small cog in a very big machine. Here, it’s the other way around. This is a Canadian-built rover with many Canadian technologies. It’s very much a Canadian mission and a major milestone.”

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Knowledge from above

Western’s Institute for Earth & Space Exploration (Western Space) is supporting Western Engineering in the development of a miniature satellite. Jayshri Sabarinathan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is the principal investigator on the CubeSat project. The Ukpik-1 CubeSat is a small satellite – about the size of a shoebox – being designed, assembled and tested by Western students.

The project, which features a camera built by Canadensys, is made possible through a national program led by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Canadian CubeSat Project (CCP). The CCP offers post-secondary students the opportunity to take part in a real space mission by designing, building, launching and operating their own miniature satellite.

As part of the program, Western students are working alongside Nunavut Arctic College (NAC) and the CSA to develop a CubeSat and ground station.

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Gordon Osinski, scientific lead on the lunar rover project.FRANK NEUFELD

The team will operate an immersive virtual reality camera in orbit, with amateur radio users and NAC students having a say in what photos are acquired.

“This is our first CubeSat project, and our goals were capacity building and experiential learning so students understand how satellites are built and how they will be launched and operated,” says Dr. Sabarinathan.

Given it could take up to two years to acquire this kind of experience in the private sector, working on the CubeSat projects gives engineering students a critical advantage when applying for post-graduation positions in the booming commercial space industry, she adds.

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Jayshri Sabarinathan, principal investigator of the Ukpik-1 CubeSat project;FRANK NEUFELD

Tools for survival

Dr. Osinski says at just 30 kilograms, the Canadian rover will be significantly smaller than the two one-tonne NASA rovers currently deployed on Mars.

“The size of our micro-rover is a challenge. It means we have to fit all our technology into a very small package, more or less the size of NASA’s first Mars rover (Sojourner) in the early nineties, but which was still able to do a lot of really good science,” he says.

Both Dr. Osinski and Dr. Sabarinathan see space as a key Canadian asset and space exploration as a driver of progress.

“Investment in space exploration not only contributes directly to Canada’s GDP by providing highly skilled jobs, but also in terms of innovation. For example, we have medical robotics in brain surgery now because of investments made in Canadarm,” says Dr. Osinski.

Dr. Sabarinathan adds that technology deployed in space provides vital information needed to address challenges on Earth, such as climate change and connecting remote areas.

“Canada needs to be at the forefront of space technology,” she says. “We benefit from the information we get back from the technology, whether it’s space exploration or remote sensing from Earth-orbiting satellites. Advances in space research have a transformative and lasting impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.”

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