Reaching New Heights with the University of Toronto Aerospace Team

Want to know how to make history? Ask the Space Systems division of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT). Not only have they developed and are preparing to launch a Cube-Satellite into space in 2020, they are the only fully student-funded satellite project in Canada.

UTAT is an interdisciplinary university design team that designs and builds drones, rockets, and, in the case of the Space Systems division, satellites. The team members are all passionate students, and with their funding success, they have made a name for themselves in the world of collegiate aerospace teams. And the Space Division is determined to reach their goal and successfully launch their CubeSat in March 2020.

CubeSats are small satellites utilized for space research. UTAT’s CubeSat, named HERON Mk II, is made up of three 10cm x 10cm x 10cm units and is roughly the size of a skinny, store-bought bread loaf. It holds a bio experiment that will measure how antibiotics affect gut yeast in space. This particular strain of yeast is called C. albicans, found in human gut flora. “The purpose of this experiment is to better understand the effects of space travel on the human body, specifically on the microorganisms that exist in our stomach,” Structures Lead Danylo Varshavsky explained. “Some of these microorganisms, like C. albicans, may become harmful to the human body while becoming more drug-resistant as they spend time in space. Our experiment tries to shed some light on these effects, hopefully allowing us to take better care of our bodies during long-term space travel.”

One of the reasons the team is using such a long payload chamber is because they’re running two experiments at the same time to get different measurements. One is an optical density measurement, where PCBs placed inside the payload will shine light through the yeast cells. This allows for observation of the density of light, so one can see if the yeast is effectively killed in the environment when virulence is expressed. The other experiment evaluates how, exactly, the yeast expresses virulence. “We have a genetic modification that, when [the yeast] expresses that segment of their genetic code, they fluoresce, they emit light,” said Jaden Reimer, Business and Outreach Co-lead. “So we have a light sensing side of the PCB to observe their behavior in that regard.”

With the bio experiment tucked inside, the structure of HERON Mk II is of utmost importance. That’s where SOLIDWORKS comes in. The payload has to be pressure sealed—on Earth, it’s just a box, but in space it needs to maintain pressure and temperature. Temperature in low orbit can fluctuate wildly, and the team doesn’t want the yeast cells to die as soon as they get into space. There are years of designing, engineering, and simulation that have gone into the HERON Mk II, and SOLIDWORKS played a huge role in its creation.

“Essentially, we use SOLIDWORKS for everything,” said Danylo. “Our modeling, our integration checks, making sure our tolerances are correct, speccing out different surface properties, thermal properties, tolerances, and checking to see how everything is going to go together.” The Space Division ran SOLIDWORKS training sessions at the beginning of the year to teach incoming first years how to use the software. “That was a cool experience because we got to see all these first year students who wouldn’t even be exposed to SOLIDWORKS for at least another year if they went into mechanical engineering, if ever, sitting and CADing the same little projects we gave them,” said Structures Lead Margaret Tkatchenko. “We had over 50 students in a computer lab attending our workshops. It was fun.”

The University of Toronto has many seats of SOLIDWORKS Education Edition available for students, and DASSAULT SYSTEMES is sponsors UTAT by providing them with free software. But a satellite needs more than just software to launch—the team needed money to send HERON Mk II into space. And the way UTAT is funding the launch is what makes them stand out from other aerospace teams.

“Most teams rely on just sponsorship or donations and whatnot,” explained Danylo. “But what we tried doing, and succeeded in doing, was putting forth a levy at the University of Toronto Student Union.” The levy stated that, unless students opt out, every student would be paying about $2.77 Canadian to the UTAT Innovation Fund, directly supporting UTAT and funding the development of HERON Mk II.  Over the span of two years, this form of funding raised over C$400,000. The team has additional monetary sponsorship, but most of their funding comes from the student body.

Division Director Ali Haydaroglu said, “One of the most important things for us was that, since we have a bio payload, we can’t have the satellite sitting on our shelf for four months. We wanted a hand off time that was closer to our launch.” Using intermediary launch provider Spaceflight Industries, the team was able to schedule a sun synchronous launch with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). And now the Cubesat is  to launch in Q1 2020 aboard the ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

UTAT’s funding success has inspired other teams around Canada and the world. Other teams approached Ali and told him how they’ve now trying to explore different funding options. And at the University Space Engineering Consortium meeting in France, he met teams who were shocked by UTAT’s accomplishment and wanted to take the idea of student funding back to their own schools. “Most student teams who put something into space are backed by the Army or the Department of Defense or other governmental collaborations where they work on military projects,” Ali said. “But [UTAT] is a unique example of students creating a cool payload, deciding they want to put it into space, and actually doing it.”

“Doing it” means successfully launching their satellite and having the experiment work, something the team members are anxiously anticipating. “I will genuinely break down and cry if we actually get to contact [HERON MK II],” said Danylo. “I will weep like a child just because of the amount of work that went into this.” Jaden, Margaret, Ali, and other team members agree. This is the first time any of the students have attempted a project of this magnitude. But technically they are on schedule and HERON Mk II is looking good.

“The team is so insanely talented and passionate,” said Margaret. “At every meeting, I’m shocked by how much work people put in and how committed they are to the team.” Ali plans on organizing a massive UTAT launch party, inviting everyone who’s ever been on the team in the past, Space Division or otherwise. The idea behind HERON MK II was formed well before any of the current members stepped foot in the University of Toronto, and to celebrate with over 300 formers teammates at the end of such a huge project would be fantastic.

And anyone can get involved. All HERON MK II files, including CAD, are open source  and either currently are or will be online. As they get closer to the launch, the team is planning on creating documentation showcasing how to build a microbiology satellite that can be shared with other space enthusiasts. And anyone who wants to get involved with UTAT and the Space Division can join and contribute on their website.

The sky is the no longer the limit for the students of UTAT. With their unique form of funding and their commitment to club sustainability, the futures of all the team members look bright. And hopefully in Q1 2020, we’ll be able to catch a glimpse of their satellite, HERON Mk II, among the stars.

Thank you to Ali Haydaroglu, Jaden Reimer, Margaret Tkatchenko, and Danylo Varshavsky for taking the time to discuss their experiences in the UTAT Space Division and HERON MK II. To learn more and get involved with the University of Toronto Aerospace Team, check out their website.  Learn more about the SOLIDWORKS Student Sponsorship Program here.

Sara Zuckerman

Sara Zuckerman

Sara Zuckerman is a SOLIDWORKS Education Contractor, Social Media and Marketing. She has a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College and recently earned a Certificate in Web Development from MassBay Community College. Sara is excited about utilizing this blog to combine her two passions, writing and technology.