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By the time you read this, a new era in Canadian spaceflight may already be under way. Call it the nano age.

Four small satellites, either owned by or developed in Canada, are scheduled to lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, on Monday morning. The principal purpose of the launch is to loft a 450-kilogram, French-built, ocean-mapping satellite into orbit. But there is room on the Indian rocket for a few smaller passengers, so a diverse array of Canadian hardware, mainly attracted by the rocket's favourable trajectory, has ended up taking much of the extra room.

This is a first. Although Canada has been a space-faring nation for more than 50 years, never have so many separate Canadian satellites rocketed into orbit all together. Among them will be the teeniest space telescopes ever to circle Earth.

"There's quite a bit riding on this particular launch," says Robert Zee, director of the University of Toronto's Space Flight Laboratory, which is home to the two miniature telescopes, each one shoehorned into a toaster-sized cube no more than 20 centimetres across. "We're pushing the envelope of what's possible."

The drive to miniaturize has been a recurring theme in the space industry where size and weight translate directly into the cost of getting a satellite off the ground. But, while smaller means cheaper, it's not always easier. Even a tiny satellite needs to hold itself steady – not an easy task for something with so little inertia. And a minimalist design also has to allow enough surface area for solar panels to generate power and enough room for the satellite to carry whatever it needs to perform its mission.

"It's pretty jam-packed in there," says Cordell Grant, the laboratory's nanosat program manager. "Size is the primary challenge in designing a nanosat."

It's a challenge that Canadian aerospace engineers have proved adept at meeting, constrained by the need to do interesting things on shoestring budgets. The small-is-beautiful approach dates back to 1996 when the Canadian Space Agency solicited proposals for a microsatellite with a science mission. The winning bid was a suitcase-sized astronomy experiment, officially called MOST, but affectionately dubbed the "Humble Space Telescope" by its lead investigator, University of British Columbia astronomer Jaymie Matthews.

Currently nearing its 10th year in orbit, with numerous discoveries to its name, MOST has shown that small satellites can deliver big results, Dr. Matthews says. So much so that, "we expected the message to spread a little more rapidly than it has," he says.

The two BRITE nanosatellites will monitor brightest stars

This week the message may finally arrive. All of the four Canadian satellites going up have a bit of MOST in their DNA. For example, because all involve optical surveillance of some kind, they are designed to point with high precision, just like MOST, employing fast-spinning "reaction wheels" to keep themselves steady.

The two nanosatellites developed at the University of Toronto – part of a project called BRITE – exemplify this. In partnership with Austria and Poland, they are the first of six planned nanosats that should all be up by the end of 2014.

BRITE's purpose is to measure subtle variations in the brightness of the largest, most brilliant stars in the sky. Such stars can outshine our sun by more than 100,000 times, ultimately exploding and seeding interstellar space with trace elements crucial to the formation of planets and life. BRITE will detect the vibrations that thrum within the blazing interiors of these stars and look for dark surface patches or "star spots" – all potential clues to how the stars behave and evolve.

"These are the stars that drive the ecology of the universe," says astronomer Anthony Moffat, of the University of Montreal, the lead Canadian scientist for BRITE. "We don't know them at this level of precision."

NEOSSat microsatellite will observe asteroids

In contrast to BRITE, a satellite called NEOSSat will be looking at targets closer to home. As the spectacular fireball that exploded above Russia made clear this month, the space around Earth is populated with small asteroids that are both natural hazards and objects of great scientific interest. NEOSSat, a nearly identical twin to MOST, is designed to find asteroids that are especially difficult to spot with ground-based telescopes because they spend most of their time in the day-lit portion of the sky.

"Our goal is understanding the asteroids that are in orbits closer to the sun than Earth," explains Alan Hildebrand, the University of Calgary geoscientist who leads the mission's asteroid-spotting campaign. "NEOSSat's observations will answer questions about the distribution of these objects."

NEOSSat's second task will be scanning the heavens for orbiting debris that can threaten working satellites – a growing problem that made headlines in February, 2009, when a defunct Russian satellite collided with and destroyed one of the Iridium satellites that provide global phone service. The mishap added thousands more pieces to the swarm of space junk buzzing around Earth.

Sapphire to be first Canadian operational military satellite

Keeping track of these and many other wayward objects will be the role of Sapphire, a Department of National Defence project that is billed as Canada's first operational military satellite. Although it is the largest of the Canadian quartet – it's about the size of a dishwasher – it still falls in the category of a "mini-satellite." Its launch marks a new role for Canada within NORAD that includes providing precise tracking data for objects orbiting up to about 40,000 kilometres from Earth.

Those in the Canadian space industry say such small, low-cost missions deliver added benefits because their shorter development timelines help maintain business in a field that would otherwise be starved for work between larger projects. And every time a satellite with Canadian hardware flies successfully, it becomes an advertisement for the next contract.

"In space, heritage is everything," says David Cooper, president of Microsat Systems Canada, of Mississauga, which built NEOSSat and sells satellite components internationally. "Once you get some success, people want to come back to you."

Others note that the biggest payoff for Canada comes in the form of developing expertise. "One of the things that we're known for is exposing students to the complete spacecraft-development cycle within the time it takes to get a master's degree," Dr. Zee says. "In the traditional space world you don't get that."

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