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Education University students design self-healing satellites

Montreal’s Space Concordia team, with a model of their satellite intended to test the research of professor Suong Hoa, centre, on self-healing materials. Back row, from left, Mats Powlowski, Atena Zolghadr, Nicholas Velenosi, Daniel Kabagema, Jan Dee, Eric Heiligenstain, Asgar Khan, Olivier Nguyen; middle row from left, Mehdi Sabzalian, Sari Marcos, Dr. Suong Hoa, Dr. Svetlana Spitsina; front row, from left, Ali Elawad, Anthony Tran, Rami Kendela, Amine Mhedhbi.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

In his lifetime, 23-year-old Mehdi Sabzalian has seen seven Canadian astronauts head into orbit. So dreaming of space comes naturally to the third-year mechanical engineering student at Concordia University in Montreal.

He thought he had set aside his interest in space because Concordia, while active in graduate-level aerospace research, offers no similar program for undergraduates (though one is in the works).

But two years ago, Mr. Sabzalian found a way to pursue his yen for space. He joined Space Concordia, a multidisciplinary engineering team of 25 students who, outside of class, are competing in the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge. The Challenge is a national competition for university students to create a small research oriented satellite, with the winning entry to go into orbit. Industry and government sponsors hope the competition will nurture a new generation of aerospace pioneers.

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"Space is extremely important for Canada," says Larry Reeves, president of the non-profit management society that administers the design challenge, which was founded in 2010 by Geocentrix Technologies Ltd. "I hope that a new and up-and-coming student generation will realize its importance and be able to bring new ideas and benefits to the country by working on their [design competition] missions."

The design challenge, which runs over the course of two years and moves into the finals in May, is simple – and daunting.

As an extra-curricular pursuit – but often with financial and faculty support from their university – students from 10 postsecondary institutions are racing to meet the May deadline to design and build a small operational research satellite about the size of half a shoebox.

Weighing a mere four kilograms and measuring 34 centimetres long by 10 cm wide and 10 cm deep, each "cube" satellite carries a payload of space-related experiments, often tied to a professor's research. Through donations, including the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter, each team must raise about $35,000 for the project.

The winner earns the right to send its satellite into orbit as part of a commercial or government space launch.

In 2012, Concordia students won the first design challenge and await approval for an orbital launch of their ConSat-1 satellite by the European Space Agency. Their craft is designed to study the South Atlantic Anomaly, an area in space close to the Earth that causes disruptions in electronic equipment. Concordia's faculty of engineering and computer science has contributed $52,000 to the 2012 and 2014 Space Concordia groups, along with lab space and advice.

Mr. Sabzalian and his fellow engineering students are putting the finishing touches on ConSat-2, a project intended to test the self-healing qualities of composite material (layers of carbon fibre and epoxy) in space.

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The experiment will test a chemical process that uses micro-capsules of epoxy that can burst and fill in the layers of fibre if they rupture, when, for instance, hit by micrometeorites. This could extend the life of a space vehicle.

Concordia engineering professor Suong Hoa, director of the Concordia Centre for Composites, has conducted research on self-healing materials for the past 12 years, in collaboration with an industry partner and the Canadian Space Agency. A ConSat-2 win would see his research tested for the first time in space.

"It would open up opportunities for our project," says Dr. Hoa, who says he has had overtures from an American company interested in commercializing his research.

For Mr. Sabzalian, working on a real-life space mission while in school represents a dream fulfilled.

"Ever since I was a kid, I was always into space and wanted to be an astronaut like all the kids of my generation," he says. "I am aiming to be in the space industry, whether private or public sector."


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Meanwhile, engineering students at Polytechnique Montréal set up PolyOrbite in 2012 as their nanosatellite entry in the Design Challenge, working with Italy's University of Bologna.

PolyOrbite academic adviser and computer science professor Giovanni Beltrame, a former engineer at the European Space Agency, says international collaborations give students insight into what would be expected of them as future research professionals.

Having students build a satellite with a real-world payload, he adds, "puts them in a unique position to show they are capable of designing a full mission."

The PolyOrbite mission will test an experimental de-orbiting system to shorten the lifespan of a satellite and ultimately reduce space debris. The proposed mission also will take photographs from space of a 1,000-square-kilometre section of Baffin Island, supporting climate change research at the Université de Montreal.

"It's about creating knowledge," says Maxime Tousignant, an engineering master's candidate at Polytechnique Montréal and a PolyOrbite team leader. "We are learning the basics and creating the simplest satellites. After that, maybe we can create something interesting for the industry."

Space technology manufacturer MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), of Richmond, B.C., is one of several companies providing financial and in-kind support.

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The design challenge "exposes a niche industry that has tremendous potential for young students to get into," says Nigel Evans, MDA deputy general manager for surveillance and intelligence. "It offers an ideal opportunity to do 'what if' scenarios, to look at technology demonstrations and get people thinking outside of the box, literally."


In one such "what if" scenario, engineering students at the University of Victoria will use their ECOsat Design Challenge entry to experiment with adjusting the altitude of a satellite using magnetic fields.

"It is both dreaming and totally practical for the next generation of nano-satellites," says Nigel Syrotuck, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and ECOsat team member.

The idea came from Victoria inventor Jim Harrington, president of A.G.O. Environmental Electronics Ltd., a manufacturer of geophysics and oceanographic equipment. Thirty years ago, he became intrigued by the magnetic repelling qualities of certain materials to possibly change the direction of a satellite, an idea he says gained little traction with scientists at the time.

Mr. Harrington, who has put up thousands of dollars of his own funds for the payload, is delighted by the response of UVic students.

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"They are a bit more open to looking at what you are doing and challenge it and try to do something," he says. "That is what is happening here."

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