A group of Canadian high school students recently won the first ever Canadian CanSat satellite competition, and are poised to represent Canada at the European Space Agency’s CanSat competition this month. The team, advised by physics teacher Joe Muise, is from St. Thomas More Collegiate in Burnaby, British Columbia.
The CanSat competition teaches space technology and STEM principles to students through hands-on, experiential learning. The competition has been open to high schools and universities internationally since 1998. In 2020, the opportunity to compete was offered to Canadian students for the first time.
A CanSat is a small satellite, approximately the size of a soda can, with a volume of approximately 350 millilitres and a mass that can’t exceed 350 grams. The challenge is to fit all the required components of a satellite into this small probe, which is significantly smaller than the more standard CubeSat.
The CanSat is then either launched by a rocket, or in this case, dropped by a helicopter from an altitude of approximately one kilometre. The satellite must record temperature, pressure, and other data during its descent. Part of the mission includes radio communication between the launched probe and a ground station, and participants also need to interpret and present the data.
Every team in the competition is also required to choose a secondary mission of scientific interest, and the St. Thomas More team chose to implement thermal imaging into their probe, inspired by a presentation from a local satellite company about how infrared is used to monitor forest fires and look under cloud cover.
“Thermal imaging came to mind, not just because of the colourful data that could be presented, but also because it seemed it could be accomplished within the restrictive dimensions of a CanSat,” says Eric Zhang, student leader of the St. Thomas More team. “Additionally, thermal imaging would require no moving parts, making the engineering of the system much less complex.”
Part of the project proposal required justifying the potential usefulness of the secondary mission. Besides wildfire management, the students saw further potential applications particularly in space exploration, as a preliminary method to detect geothermal activity when landing on a new planet.
When it came to designing the CanSat, the students took the lead. “I'm not so much the engineer, the students are,” says Muise. “I kind of guide them in the right place, and give them some ideas and try to connect them to experts in fields that will give them useful information.” Muise first posted the opportunity on an extracurricular science forum, attracting enough interested students to form a team with the skills needed to design a satellite.
“I think that this sort of experiential learning is really, really powerful for inspiring kids to go on in STEM fields,” says Muise. “These are kids that are thinking about going into science, but really not sure what they want to do, and it really locks in and cements future career paths and inspiration for what they want to do later on.”
We’re thrilled to support the team from St. Thomas More Collegiate, and we wish them luck as they represent Canada at the ESA competition this week!