Ex-Alta 1, Alberta's first orbiting satellite, is alive and well and phoning home.
The 30-centimetre-long probe, built by students at the University of Alberta, was sprung from the International Space Station at 4:55 EST on Friday morning.
Video footage showed the deployment was successful. The rectangular satellite, roughly the size of a milk carton, can be seen shooting out of a dispenser on the side of the space station and then receding into the deep blue backdrop of Earth scrolling by in the distance.
But Ex-Alta 1's mission team had to wait until the satellite turned on its radio transmitter to be sure everything worked as planned. Confirmation came about 8:40 a.m. EST as the miniature spacecraft passed over East Asia and its radio beacon was picked up by ground stations in Japan and South Korea.
"Until now, we couldn't allow ourselves to imagine very far beyond this point," said an elated Charles Nokes, the mission's project manager, who joined the U of A effort to develop and launch a homegrown satellite nearly four years ago.
"When we last turned it on, it did what it was supposed to do," he added. "But there's always a bit of trepidation. Could something go wrong?"
Now that the satellite appears to be working, the team's worst-case fears that it would fail to activate after being dormant for 10 months while waiting for launch and then deployment from the space station have finally been banished.
Mr. Nokes said that over the weekend, the team will work on establishing direct contact with Ex-Alta 1 and stabilizing its orientation as it orbits so that it can begin to gather scientific data.
The first measurement should come from a sensitive and lightweight magnetometer that was designed at the University of Alberta and will now get its debut in orbit.
Ex-Alta 1 is the only Canadian representative in a larger international project called QB50 that has helped to shepherd dozens of student satellite teams to the launch pad.
As part of the project, 28 small "cubesats" from 16 countries are to be released from the space station this month, with eight more scheduled to piggyback off the launch of an Indian satellite in June.
For students hoping to gain project management skills or boost their chances of breaking into the aerospace industry, the experience that comes with getting something into orbit, no matter how small, is hard to top.
"Being part of @AlbertaSat with Ex-Alta 1 cubesat was invaluable to me!" wrote Kirsten Cote, a graduate student in earth and space science at York University in Toronto and a former team member who was posting updates about the deployment on Twitter early Friday morning.
"It's really building the next generation of highly qualified people that could enter the space market or even the high-tech market in the future," said Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, director-general of space science and technology at the Canadian Space Agency.
Dr. Piedboeuf said the agency is now consulting with interested universities as it develops a new initiative to fund 13 student cubesats, one built in each province and territory in Canada. The satellites would be launched in two batches in 2020 and 2021 and would operate for up to 12 months.
"There's a real opportunity here … to attract young people into the space sector that would normally see this as something that is too difficult to reach," he said.
Cubesat building has become a popular activity among aerospace programs worldwide. It is a project that university students can realistically accomplish with a price typically in the range of $200,000 per satellite, not including launch.
But while the goal creating a cubesat is increasingly accessible, the technical challenges of spaceflight remain daunting and the potential for failure high.
Mr. Nokes said there were some hard lessons and a lot of backtracking along the way to getting Ex-Alta 1 off the ground. But he added that for students interested in launching their own cubesats, the takeaway message from his team's experience is a positive one.
"It's totally doable," he said.