Measuring Magnetic Interactions

One of the primary objectives of the mission of the Ex-Alta 1 is to study the interaction between energy coming from the sun and its effect on the Earth’s magnetic field, within the ionosphere, as a result of electrical currents driven by space weather. Space weather also affects the radiation environment in space with potentially catastrophic impacts on satellites. To that end, the radiation dosimeter will measure variations in radiation levels in low Earth orbit (the altitude between the Earth’s surface and 2,000 km), by measuring the number of electrically charged particles in the Earth’s magnetic field. To monitor the magnetic field, the magnetometer will be deployed at the end of a 60 cm boom to study the Earth’s magnetic field in low Earth orbit.

“Low Earth orbit is poorly understood at this time,” says Nokes. “In particular, our satellite will be flying through the South Atlantic Anomaly where we’ll see some interesting phenomena in the way of radiation belts penetrating to lower altitudes. We’ve characterized the systems on the ground and are continuing to improve the technology. We have an idea of what to expect in space, though making clean magnetic measurements requires moving the magnetometer away from the electrical noise generated by satellite subsystems—that’s also why we’ll deploy the magnetometer on a boom away from the satellite.”

The satellite data from Ex-Alta 1 and the rest of the CubeSat constellation will provide scientists with unprecedented insight into the low Earth orbit activity and the effects of space weather in the mid to lower thermosphere—all for an impressively reasonable cost.

The Cost of Constellations

Low cost is one of the huge advantages of CubeSat missions. The components that make up the Ex-Alta 1 satellite cost about $120,000 USD (the value of the satellite itself). There is considerable ground support equipment that is also required as well as hundreds of volunteer hours to build and test the satellite.

“A more realistic number to describe the cost of the entire mission is around $800,000 USD, including the launch cost, the costs associated with project and mission level systems engineering, and of course goodwill and value of volunteer hours,” says Nokes. “Normally, the cost to launch a 3U CubeSat is on the order of $200,000-300,000 USD, depending on the launcher and the required orbit. Through funding from the European Commission, the QB50 program provided a subsidized launch opportunity hence we paid only $48,000 USD for our launch.”

The largest portion of the funding and support for Ex-Alta 1, over $80,000 USD, came from the University of Alberta through the Faculty of Engineering’s Engineering Student Project Fund and the Faculty of Science. Significant funding was also drawn from two crowd sourcing campaigns, as well as a contribution of $75,000 USD from the Canadian Space Agency, a launch subsidy and mission level project management from VKI and the QB50 program and the in-kind donation of two receivers from NovAtel.