Flying High: ISM CREATE students successfully launch high altitude balloon into near space

10 students from USask, Royal Military College, UCalgary and NTNU in Norway came together in Saskatoon for a 3 week intensive Field school to design, build and launch a balloon mission.

Back Row: Faezeh, Mona, Stefan, Ian, Jarle, Rianna (holding the payload), Erik, Cara, Hayden, Ivan, Dr. Sangalli Front Row: Bruce, Capt Dumont, Pouya

Special thanks to the Saskatoon Soaring Club for the use of their hanger in Cudworth Sask and the Saskatoon Ham Radio club for their help with tracking and recovery of the payload.

We even made the news!

Congratulations to DASP Conference Presentation Winners

The annual conference of the Division of Atmospheric and Space Physics (DASP) was held virtually in February 2022. Twelve current students and alumni of the ISM CREATE program attended and once again made us proud taking the majority of student presentation awards. Well done!

Hannah Parry (1st)
Sneha Susan Babu (2nd)

Leonid Olifer (Honourable Mention)
Katelyn Ball (Honourable Mention)

CONGRATULATIONS to Kathryn McWilliams!

A Canadian first

In January, Kathryn McWilliams, PhD, became the first Canadian to receive an honorary fellowship in geophysics from the U.K.-based Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Dr. McWilliams is the Principal Investigator and founder of the ISM CREATE program.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all; it was very surprising and humbling,” says McWilliams, a professor of physics and engineering physics at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

The RAS represents scientists in disciplines including astronomy, geophysics and space science. Its coveted fellowships recognize scientists outside the U.K. who have made significant contributions in their fields.

“What I do is commonly called ‘space science’ — the science of the space between the Earth and the sun. We’re trying to understand Earth’s space environment, so it’s kind of a study of weather and how conditions in space created by the sun’s activity affect us,” explains McWilliams.

McWilliams directs SuperDARN Canada, part of an international effort that uses radar to learn more about the Earth’s upper atmosphere. As a summer student in 1992, McWilliams helped build the first radar site, and today, she chairs the International SuperDARN Collaboration, which involves researchers from 10 countries.

“It works like a police speed radar trap: we send out a signal into the atmosphere up about 250 kilometers, just below the space station. The moving electrically-charged particles up there modify our signal, and we get an echo back. Then, we can look at how the signal changes to determine how fast those particles are moving.”

“Our laboratory is practically the size of the solar system, and we work with people all over the world, because no one group could have enough funding or enough money to have all the instruments needed to answer these questions. I love that it’s a collaborative type of research field.

ISM CREATE students, Liam Graham and Daniel Letros, travel to Sweden to launch ALI

Paul Loewen with ISM CREATE students Liam Graham and Daniel Letros work on the equipment gondola

When people think about developing novel technologies for space and near-space applications, they typically assume that most problems will occur once a system has reached its operational stage. There are good reasons for this: space and the upper atmosphere are environments characterized by extremes. Extreme temperatures, vacuum pressures, intense launches and ascents, and the possibility of communications failure around every corner – to name just a few.

ISM CREATE students, Daniel Letros and Liam Graham of the University of Saskatchewan assumed the same thing when finally closed the newest prototype of the Aerosol Limb Imager (ALI) in its cargo trunk to be shipped to Esrange Space Center in the Swedish arctic. After the thousands of combined hours of work spent by them and the rest of the ALI team at USask designing, assembling, troubleshooting, calibrating, and testing their stratospheric balloon payload, they thought that surely the next problem would arise once ALI was 36 km above the Earth suspended by a football-field sized helium balloon. Little did they know that they would soon relearn the same lesson learned by every engineer that has ever worked in this realm.

Never assume anything when it comes to space.

ALI is a prototype satellite instrument designed to fly 35 km above the Earth on a balloon while taking measurements of sunlight scattered by the atmosphere at several visible and near infrared wavelengths. Measurements produced by ALI are used to determine the properties of aerosol particles suspended in the stratosphere including their concentration and size distribution. These measurements are critically important for understanding Earth’s climate, as stratospheric aerosols reflect sunlight away from the Earth’s surface and cooling the planet.

The new ALI prototype that Liam and Daniel were part of developing was scheduled to be launched skyward from Esrange Space Center in the Swedish arctic in August of 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ALI team was not given permission to travel with the instrument for integration and operation in Sweden. However, when ALI was unpacked after arrival at the base by Canadian Space Agency engineers, they quickly discovered that two mirror mounts had fallen apart while being shipped overseas. Due to the technical nature of the reassembly of the mounts and realigning the mirrors the team was granted emergency clearance to travel to Sweden early the next day.

Three days later, Daniel and Liam found themselves in Kiruna, Sweden along with USask research engineer Paul Loewen. After the logistical nightmare of attempting to travel across the globe on 3 days notice during a pandemic, the time had come to work to save their instrument in time for it to be integrated on its gondola in one week’s time. But the trio had come to Sweden with a plan and a deep knowledge of the system they had designed and built. Within 48 hours of their arrival at Esrange Space Centre, that plan had been executed. The mirror mounts had been reassembled and reinforced by structural epoxy, and the system had been realigned and refocussed with the help of equipment borrowed from the French space agency, CNES, and another team working on the German TotalBrO instrument.

Times of crisis and difficulty very often represent an opportunity for those who are willing to take it. The crisis of the ALI mechanical failure created an opportunity for these two young professionals to gain real experience working a problem under real time constraints. A successful outcome would not have been reached if not for the support of the French space agency, a team of German scientists, and the two CSA engineers on site in Sweden. Indeed, flying and testing ALI would not have been possible without

international collaboration. ALI flew on a French space agency gondola alongside two German scientific instruments after being launched from a space center in Sweden. The ALI adventure represents, in its own small way, the international and collaborative nature of humanity’s exploration of space. Alone, we can go nowhere. Together, we can go anywhere.

Zero G Campaign Success

Faezeh Ebadollahi is an NSERC-CREATE ISM student working with Dr. Gordon Sarty’s lab. She was able to travel to Ottawa with the team to test their instrument with the help of an ISM CREATE travel grant.

Dr. Gordon Sarty and his team in the Space MRI Lab at University of Saskatchewan have been working on building prototypes of MRIs to be used in future space missions. For the past four years, with funding from a CSA FAST grant, they have been utilizing a specific method called TRASE (Transmit Array Spatial Encoding) to build an ankle-sized TRASE MRI named “Merlin”. 

The Merlin MRI was finally ready to be tested in zero-gravity in April 2021! We all flew to Ottawa to test the MRI in a Falcon 20 jet at the NRC’s (National Research Council of Canada) Aerospace Research Centre. MRI experiments were conducted during two flights with an average of 16 parabolas per flight. The data acquisition was performed during the 20 seconds of zero-gravity experienced in each parabola. We were all extremely excited since this was a crucial milestone for the Merlin project and we were happy to see that the Merlin MRI worked exactly as expected! We are still working on improving the images from the Merlin, but during this mission we successfully demonstrated that our design is robust enough for space applications. 

It was an amazing experience to be a part of the team and witness every step of the process closely. There were procedures for everything that had to be followed carefully. For instance, the Merlin MRI needed to pass an airworthiness review. In order to do that, Dr. Sarty had the Merlin delivered to the NRC Aerospace Research Centre in Ottawa one week before the main flights. Inside NRC’s hanger, fabricated aluminum safety straps were added to integrate the MRI magnet into its frame and aerospace certified fasteners were used to mount electronics boxes to ensure the safety of having the Merlin onboard the jet in an environment that varied from +2 g to 0 g.  

During the first few days of our stay in Ottawa, we spent a lot of time inside the NRC’s hanger familiarizing ourselves with the Falcon 20 jet and the pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight procedures. We went over each member’s assigned tasks and discussed the routines (written down as check lists); such as the commands that needed to be given to the computer (which was also fixed in front of one of the jet seats), how to put the leg inside and out of the MRI safely (for safety issues the leg could not be inside the device during take-off and landing), and how to keep proper records of the collected data. Moreover, we set back-up plans in case some of the crew members were not feeling well due to the extreme conditions of the flight. We also had a ground check-out for the equipment where we reviewed our procedures to make sure that the Merlin MRI was working properly before the zero-gravity maneuvers.   

Once the Merlin MRI was fully prepared to be flown, the NRC crew explained the flight protocols and the COVID-19 regulations such as how the zero-gravity maneuvers work and they gave us details about the communications through headsets – like what codes could possibly be used during the flights and their meanings. We were then given safety tips such as how trying not to look out of the window or keeping our heads straight could help prevent possible motion sicknesses.  

Before each flight, the team including the pilots, the NRC members in-charge and the Space MRI lab squad had a briefing session. The flight agenda would be discussed and the team would go over the flight details including the number of parabolas, the altitude of the airplane and any other possibly significant information. And after each flight we would wrap everything up in a debriefing session. 

This was quite a unique experience for us to observe a space-like mission get executed in real-life! Besides, we also got to explore a hanger full of fascinating airplanes! 

Chris Robson: Co-founder of Wyvern

Chris Robson: Co-founder and CEO of Wyvern Canada

Chris Robson was a member of the first cohort of ISM CREATE students during his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta.  He became a space enthusiast during his tenure as the first project manager of AlbertaSat, a team launching Alberta’s first cube satellite (CubeSat) called Ex-Alta1.  His interest in space and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to start Promethean Labs during his masters but he departed the business in order to concentrate on his Master’s degree. In the last year of his Master’s, the ISM CREATE program funded Chris to attend the Small Satellite symposium in Toronto in 2018.  There he reconnected with Kristen Cote, a friend and alumni of AlbertaSat, and discussed their mutual ideas related to deployable optics and hyperspectral imagery. James Slifierz, CEO of Skywatch, encouraged the pair to pursue their concept combining these two ideas.

Together, with Callie Lissinna from AlbertaSat’s Ex-Alta 2 CubeSat project, and Kurtis Broda from the University of Alberta’s Mechanical Engineering Masters Program, they formed Wyvern with the vision of bringing the Space Industry to Alberta and using hyperspectral imagery to build a sustainable future for humanity.  Chris Robson and Kurtis Broda joined the team full-time with a GreenSTEM grant from the Government of Alberta.  They were accepted into a 9-month program with Creative Destruction Labs (CDL), a nonprofit organization that provides an objectives-based program for seed-stage science and technology companies. CDL startups work with mentors to sharpen objectives, prioritize time and resources, raise capital, build networks and engage with experts.

The group has two advisory boards, one focused on the business and one providing guidance on the science and technology.  Chris’ advice for success to young entrepreneurs is to ask for advice from multiple perspectives, but don’t be afraid to make decisions that may seem to go against some of the advice you receive. Leverage your network to find partners, mentors, advisors, investors, and customers. He says, “My special skill is convincing others to join my crazy adventures.” His enthusiasm and persistence are contagious and he has built a broad network of mentors and supporters. Chris is very optimistic about Wyvern’s future, envisioning a 100+ constellation of satellites delivering earth observation imagery that will support planet wide sustainability. He hopes to contribute the promise of space industry growth in Alberta and in Canada.

We look forward to future announcements from Wyvern and wish Chris and his team every success.

Congratulations to Devin Huyghebaert: CREATE PostDoctoral Fellow wins Living Planet Fellowship with the European Space Agency

What details can we uncover about the Farley-Buneman, also known as the two-stream, plasma density instability in the auroral E-region ionosphere through utilization o the Swarm satellie constellation and gournd based instrumentation?

Devin Huyghebaert

Devin is a postdoctoral fellow in Space Physics at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.  He obtained his B.Eng. (2010), M.Sc. (2013), and Ph.D. (2019) at the University of Saskatchewan, with his Ph.D. focused on the design, construction, and operation of a novel coherent scatter radar system to measure plasma density irregularities in the E-region ionosphere.  The radar is named ICEBEAR and will be utilized in conjunction with the instruments onboard the Swarm satellites and the Saskatoon SuperDARN radar for the studies to be performed as part of his Living Planet Fellowship project.  Devin is a part of the NSERC CREATE International Space Mission Training Program in Canada, as well as a member of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, the American Geophysical Union, and the European Geosciences Union.

Research objectives

  • Create software to map and compare Swarm measurements with ground based instrumentation
  • Investigate the Farley-Buneman instability in the E-region ionosphere using Swarm measurements and ground based coherent scatter radars
  • Determine if there is a relationship between locations of E-region plasma density irregularities and ion upflow
  • Investigate potential Alfvén wave signatures in co-located E-region coherent scatter radar and Swarm measurements

Welcome to Canada Daniel – NSERC CREATE Post-Doctoral Fellow

Daniel Billet, Post-doctoral Fellow

Daniel Billet joined the NSERC CREATE international space mission training program as a Post-doctoral Fellow in November 2019, coming to the University of Saskatchewan from the UK. Daniel’s focus is the interaction between ionospheric plasma and the neutral atmosphere. This involves the SuperDARN to measure ionospheric plasma velocities, and an array of supplementary instruments such as Fabry-Perot Interferometers and satellite accelerometers to determine local neutral wind conditions.

Daniel completed an MPhys in Astrophysics (Honours) in 2015 at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He then attended Lancaster University, UK and completed his PhD in Space Physics in 2019. Daniel’s PhD involved working with SuperDARN data and other instruments to examine space weather interactions with the Earth’s atmosphere. He was also the recipient of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) fellowship at the University of Electrocommunications in Tokyo. The work in Japan involved incorporating auroral camera data into his PhD work to improve it’s accuracy.

Welcome to ISAS, Space Mission Training and SuperDARN Daniel.

Alex Chang: Internship with SED Systems and CSA Satellite control in Saint-Hubert Quebec

Alex Chang is an ISM CREATE Master’s student at the Unversity of Saskatchewan. He was hired as an intern with SED Systems to join the team tracking the Radarsat Constellation Mission(RCM) less than a month after it’s launch.

The Canadian Space Agency facilities at Saint-Hubert Quebec are the headquarters of Satellite control in Canada. Alex drove to Saint-Hubert from Saskatoon in early July 2019 and started RCM SCT training in order to acquire the skills and knowledge required to execute the mission tasks including:

1.       Routine control and operation of the RCM satellites.
·         Pre-pass configuration
·         Pass (TTCS equipment operations, table uploads, telemetry verification, on-orbit telemetry and science data dumps, etc)
·         Equipment deconfiguration and event logging

2.       Verification for unexpected RCM satellite state and limit violations.
·         Real-time contacts
·         On-orbit stored telemetry data

3.       Review of RCM routine and contingency operational products.

The team at Saint-Hubert were very impressed with Alex ability and willingness to aid the team:

Alex was well appreciated and respected by his colleagues and was always available to support shift schedule requirements. Despite the fact that he had very limited operational experience, he performed extremely well.

Integrating three new satellites into our multi-mission operation was a complex activity that created a significant increase to our workload. Since launch was scheduled in June, it also introduced additional constraints related to the summer vacation plans. Having an internship allowed us to reduce the impact of the increased workload on the vacation schedules.

When conducting recruitment campaigns, candidates are usually surprised to know that technicians and engineers are conducting satellite control activities from the Canadian Space Agency at Saint-Hubert. They are also surprised to know that they could join this team even if they are not working as a federal public servant. Having an internship provided us the opportunity to increase our visibility and might help us in future recruitment campaigns.

Desjardins, Stéphane JDS (ASC/CSA)

Alex enjoyed the internship at Saint-Hubert and interviewed a number of his colleagues in order to share the various roles involved and career opportunities in satallite operations in Canada. You can find Alex’s interviews here.

Kassi Klepper – Fulbright Scholar

Kassi Klepper is an ISM CREATE student from the University of Tromsø in Norway. She attended the Space Mission Design and High Altitude Balloon launch field school at the University of Saskatchewan in the summer of 2019. She continued on to the United States to take up her Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Hawai’i. Kassi spent 2 semesters at Hilo – the University of Hawai’i at Hilo Mauna Kea. There she took graduate level courses in astrophysics, distant space and abstract concepts of relativity as well as the history and culture of Hawai’i

Although her last semester was cut short by the COVID-19 global pandemic she was able to successfully complete all the coursework toward her Masters degree. Congratulations Kassi!