Two Canadian satellites, each the size of a toaster, are heading to space on Thursday to probe the inner workings of some of the brightest stars in the sky. But in a time of roiling political tension over the situation in Ukraine, the Canadian Space Agency has made no public mention of the launch, scheduled for 3:11 p.m. (ET), aboard a Russian rocket.
In a draft news release to be issued following a successful launch, the agency congratulates the scientists and engineers behind the mission, but makes no mention of the launch site, a military base in Yasny, Russia.
The under-the-radar approach, which means foregoing an opportunity to tout the innovative Canadian science and technology behind the twin spacecraft, underscores the challenge faced by the agency while the federal government pursues sanctions against Russia. In April, Ottawa cancelled the launch of a defence department satellite known as M3MSat, which was to have lifted off aboard the same rocket.
A spokesperson for the space agency referred questions about tomorrow's launch to the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, where the two satellites were built.
Cordell Grant, who manages the Toronto lab's nanosat program, wasn't able to say to what extent Canada-Russia relations had muted the agency's public relations around the mission, but added, "We don't want that to override the fact that we're doing interesting science and that it's a really cool mission."
Once launched, the two satellites will join three others, all with the same Canadian design, but paid for by Austria and Poland. A sixth satellite, also Polish, will launch in August to complete the orbiting constellation, collectively known as BRITE.
Together, the six satellites will train their electronic eyes on the most luminous stars visible from Earth, looking for slight, momentary changes in brightness that will provide clues to the stars' inner workings. Each satellite cost about $1-million, a modest sum by spaceflight standards.
The Canadian satellites are going up as part of a massive joint payload that includes some 30 other spacecraft, Mr. Grant said. There will be no live feed from the launch, but a Canadian team member will be on hand to verify that the rocket has lifted off.
It could take as little as 90 minutes to make contact with the two nanosats once they have achieved orbit, but it's more likely that confirmation of their status may not occur until about eight hours later, when they pass over a Toronto ground station for the first time. Even then it may be hard to pick out which two satellites belong to Canada as the armada of newly launched hardware sails overhead.
Should the satellites fail it will be a blow for those who have spent the past decade working toward tomorrow's launch. However, Canadian astronomers will still have access to the data gathered by their Austrian and Polish counterparts.
"We're all in this together," says Anthony Moffat of the University of Montreal, the lead Canadian scientist for BRITE. "We're sharing all the data no matter whose satellites they are."