UVic ECOSat team's winning satellite design could be the next big thing in space travel

- Suzanne Ahearne

It looks like a tiny black office tower with an antenna, but when this unassuming shoebox-sized nano-satellite is launched 800 kilometres into space, the University of Victoria engineering students who built and designed it will be experimenting with what might just be the next big thing in space travel: diamagnetic propulsion.

Project manager Devin Pelletier, electrical lead Cass Hussmann and chief engineer Justin Curran, together with a team of 20 students comprising the UVic ECOSat-2 entry in the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CDSC), won the top prize in the final round of the three-year-long Canada-wide competition.

Ten university teams participated in the challenge to design and build a small operational science research satellite with a maximum mass of four kilograms. Six teams made it to the final testing stage at the David Florida Lab in Ottawa where the prize was announced in June.

“It’s so exciting to be working on the foundations of a technology that could one day change space travel as we know it,” says Pelletier, a third-year electrical engineering student.

Larry Reeves, CSDC’s founder and one of the competition judges, says this competition is a great platform for experimentation with relatively little expense in an industry that is usually risk-averse because of the costs involved.

The principal investigator and theorist behind the scientific payload for the satellite is Jim Harrington, an Esquimalt-based, self-taught physicist and owner of A.G.O. Environmental Electronics, which manufactures geophysics and oceanographics equipment and fuel cells.

The principle of diamagnetism was identified back in the 1860s, but because the force is so weak, physicists mostly ignored it. Harrington himself pondered it back in the 1970s. For a time, he was tantalized. He hypothesized that in space, where there is little gravity and no air and therefore no resistance, this weak force may be a game changer for the future of propulsion systems. Then, like others before him, he shelved the idea.

When the team’s faculty advisor and director of UVic’s Centre for Aerospace Research Dr. Afzal Suleman went looking for a collaborator for the scientific research portion of the competition, he was happy to find Harrington right here in the community.

Harrington, who built a sensor for the Ulysses spacecraft and three other devices that have gone into space, leapt at the opportunity to work with the UVic students. Together, they designed a series of simple experiments.

Inside the satellite is a solar-powered laser and a block of pyrolytic graphite, a naturally occurring mineral that is diamagnetic—it repels a magnetic field regardless of polarity.

The project goal is very basic: to measure the motion (if any) created by the diamagnetic force between the on-board solar-powered laser and a piece of pyrolytic graphite (which naturally repels a magnetic field regardless of polarity) as they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. “Even if we can get the satellite to move a micron,” says Harrington, “it will be a huge success, have a very big impact on the aerospace industry.”

“The force of diamagnetism might eventually be used for interstellar travel; it would be much like sailing in space using magnetic field ‘winds’ to repel the diamagnetic sail,” says Harrington.

Pelletier says the concept isn’t so much a long shot as a long haul. He acknowledges that it may take another 50 years to develop it to that point, but the purpose of the experiments is to stimulate research and create awareness of its potential for locomotion in space. It’s a field of study well suited to risk-taking, long-haul thinkers.

“None of this would be possible,” he says, “without people like Afzal Suleman, Jim Harrington, and CDSC founder Larry Reeves giving us the guidance and support we need to pursue our passion.”

“The CSDC has provided a unique platform for students to get involved in a truly multidisciplinary endeavour and contribute to aerospace research and development in Western Canada," says Suleman.

Along with the prize comes a launch deal that Reeves is working to secure, most likely with a space agency in Russia, India or China. In the meantime, while Pelletier, Hussmann and others continue to make small refinements to the satellite, the team of undergraduate and graduate students will receive up to $10,000 to build a ground control centre to monitor the satellite and receive data when it passes within communication range of UVic four or five times a day.

The university has supported the project with $100,000 in funding, and NSERC with $25,000.


In this story

Keywords: research, multidisciplinary, space

People: Devin Pelletier, Larry Reeves, Afzal Suleman, Jim Harrington

Related stories