From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.
On episode 298, RADSAT-SK Technical Project manager and president of the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team walk us through the ins and outs of the first satellite from Saskatchewan recently deployed from the space station. This episode was recorded on June 22, 2023.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 298, From Saskatchewan to Space.” I’m Gary Jordan, I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, students, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more. Onboard the International Space Station right now is a CubeSat or a miniature satellite that’s about to be deployed, and it has an interesting mission and background. The CubeSat is called RADSAT-SK, or Radiation Satellite Saskatchewan. It’s a small satellite with two major objectives to test a new type of dosemeter or radiation sensor that is smaller and cheaper, and to test a radiation shielding technology derived from Melanin, which is found in many organisms, including people. Now, just as interesting as the investigation itself is where it came from, this CubeSat will be the first satellite from Saskatchewan in Canada. And to get to this point where the satellite at this time has just successfully deployed from the International Space Station, it was quite a journey. So to help us understand the story behind this CubeSat and how it all became possible, we’re bringing in Dustin Preece, RADSAT-SK technical project manager at the University of Saskatchewan, and Arliss Sidloski, president of the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team. So grab yourself a Saskatoon Pie as we dig into the story and science of RADSAT-SK. Enjoy.
Host: Dustin and Arliss, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast.
Dustin Preece: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here today.
Arliss Sidloski: Yeah, thanks for having us on.
Host: Yeah, what an exciting time. You guys are really close to the deployment of your satellite from the International Space Station at the time of this recording. And I know you guys have put a lot of work into actually building this thing and getting it ready for this spectacular moment. Let’s just take a moment to think about that. Dustin, we’ll start with you. We’re really close to your, you know, this piece of hardware, something you’ve worked really hard on, being deployed from the space station into space. The first satellite from Saskatchewan. How does that sort of sit with you? What are your feelings, you know, in these weeks ahead of the actual deployment?
Dustin Preece: [Laughter] That’s a good question. I guess there’s a bit of apprehension. There’s excitement. There’s a whole range of emotions all wrapped up together going into this. Many of us have been on the project for many years. Myself, I’ve been with this since 2019. So there’s a lot of time invested into the project. And when we integrated into the deployer in Montreal at CSA (Canadian Space Agency) Headquarters, that was a huge moment. Tons of emotion there. And now that it’s going to actually, you know, go out into space and we have to start talking to it, that’s going to be– I don’t know, there’s no real words to describe the feelings that are at play there. But it’s a huge moment, and it’s a huge moment for all of the people involved. And, you know, for province and for all the institutions involved, the U of S (University of Saskatchewan), the Sas. Polytech (Saskatchewan Polytech), the CSA and USST. Arliss can speak more about USST (University of Saskatchewan Space Team) and other students involved too, I think.
Host: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what’s sort of what I was trying to capture is this, like, it’s just a CubeSat, right? But there are– so this is what I wanted to capture. There’s just so much behind it. And so many people that have contributed to this thing. That’s really what I wanted to capture. Arliss, yeah. Yeah. Tell us about your thoughts and the experiences and, you know, you’re representing the students of the Space Design Team as the president. So, how do you feel? How does your team feel in these weeks ahead of deployment?
Arliss Sidloski: Oh, we’re all really excited. This is, yeah. I mean, Dustin said it well. Our team has been working on this project for over five years now. And yeah, like, we keep amazing ourselves every time we reach a new milestone. We’ve been overcoming so many different challenges and learning so much. And it’s like, yes, we made the next milestone. And when we integrated in Montreal at the end of March, it was like, oh my gosh, like, I can’t believe we did it. And then that was successful. And then we went down to Florida, and we watched the launch and now, it’s going to be deployed. So yeah, all really, really excited. And now we’re working on building the ground station up so that we’ll be able to communicate with it once it’s deployed.
Host: Oh my gosh. Wait, let me back up to one thing. You said, Arliss, you said you got to go down to Florida and watch the launch. So, all these different moments you’re talking about, the different milestones, the different moments of progress that you passed to get to the moment of launch, I wonder if it all just sort of hit you in that moment. You actually see the Falcon 9 light up, and you see that, because I’ve seen a launch a couple of times too, and just, it’s bright, it’s loud, your thing is going to space. Was that a powerful moment for you?
Arliss Sidloski: It really was. And it also happened in what we like to call typical RADSAT fashion, where it didn’t all go smoothly. Like the launch was, it was set for the Saturday, and then it got pushed back to Sunday, and then it eventually launched on Monday. So, yeah, we were excited. We were like, OK, like, it’s still going to happen. It’s just getting delayed. And that’s kind of what happened with a lot of our design process with the project. Something happened, but we overcame it and eventually we made it. So, yeah.
Host: That is the story that I want to dive into today. But first I sort of want to understand your roles. I mentioned in the introduction before we got to actually speak with you, your different roles in this. Dustin, let’s go back to you for a second. Your role is the RADSAT-SK technical project manager. And you work with all the different students and have different roles in putting this CubeSat together. So what’s your role as the technical project manager?
Dustin Preece: So, as the technical project manager, I kind of oversee the technical aspect of the project. So I started, actually, as a general systems engineering member, and then I became a systems lead. And then eventually, I went into the technical project manager role. And the last few months too, Arliss was actually a co-tech PM with me. She helped out when I had some issues going on with family, some family emergencies that came up. But, as the role of the Tech PM– we have three project managers. We have a financial project manager that’s watching the budget and helping make purchases and dealing with any financial issues within the university and other institutions. And then we have a media and outreach and HR project manager that they are responsible for recruiting, doing outreach to schools and all sorts of different events like that. And also, making sure that things work smoothly with media interviews. And then the technical side of things is basically everything that’s left over. It’s basically working with the different– we have eight subsystem teams, and basically, we have weekly meetings with those eight subsystem teams and making sure that communication is flowing between our subsystems and the people in them. And that we aren’t getting too siloed. Communication is probably one of the hardest things to maintain on a complex project when you have many, many people involved. Sometimes you’ll hit a point where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. And it’s kind of that oversight at the top that has to make sure that everyone knows, you know, that we’re all on the same page. We’re all working towards the same common goal. And that we don’t hit any hiccups with things that are incompatible or design concepts or design implementations that might be incompatible. Arliss, since you were a co-tech PM, do you have anything to add to that?
Arliss Sidloski: No, I think you definitely described the rules good. My path was actually very similar to Dustin’s. I joined the team in the summer, before my first year of university started. And Dustin was the systems lead then. And I made my way through the ranks. I started as a systems member, then I became systems lead. Then I transitioned into the financial project manager role, and then eventually to the co-technical project manager with Dustin.
Host: Yes. You’ve had your hands on a little bit of everything, Arliss. You’ve seen the multiple aspects and I guess that sort of helped you to land the role of president. You kind of have a little piece of how it all kind of fits together.
Arliss Sidloski: Yeah.
Host: So Dustin, for the technical PM role, I wanted to understand, because you talked about all the different roles you’ve had over the years because you’ve been with this project for a while. The technical PM, are you doing everything mostly yourself or are you delegating a lot of the technical responsibilities, “hey, you take care of this system, you take care of this system,” and you just sort of see how it all– you have to make sure, you have to manage the whole thing. What exactly does the technical PM do?
Dustin Preece: So the Tech PM has historically, in our group, been responsible for a lot of the external communications with CSA, and any requirements that are coming from them, we bring to the team. And usually, the systems lead and the Tech PM kind of work hand in hand, with the Tech PM being a little bit more outward focused, and then the systems lead kind of assists to make sure that everything is working together inwardly. But we’re all volunteers, so you kind of get out of it what you put into it. That’s one thing I’ve heard Arliss say before. And with myself, I’ve been involved in the technical aspects of our timer board design doing the flat sat design as systems lead, that was one of my responsibilities. And assisting with a lot of the hands-on testing. But I’ve kind of, as you know, I’ve went on in years, I’ve kind of stepped back a little bit just to allow for other students to have more opportunity. And then, I’ve just tried to delegate and oversee a little bit, just basically what I’ve learned through the years. Just try to pass that knowledge on. And that’s a large core goal of our group, is basically to pass on knowledge and let other people gain expertise. With the CCP (Canadian CubeSat Project) project, maybe Tony [Pellerin] would like to speak about it more, but one of their main goals is basically the development of skilled personnel for the aerospace industry. And the more that we can spread the experience out and make sure that everyone’s, you know, being elevated through the process and the journey the better off we are. And, you know, the more people that are knowledgeable about what is going on, the more likely we are to see things that some of us may have overlooked. And just little design elements that aren’t compatible or that, you know, just aren’t quite right. So as we onboard people, they have fresh sets of eyes and they point out our mistakes, and it’s very humbling and it’s very valuable.
Host: Yeah, it sounds it, yeah. Obviously, you don’t want the buck to stop with you, right? Like, you’re only going to be a student for so long. I know you’ve been involved in the project for so long, for a while now. But, to involve many students and make sure this thing continues, which we will address– I think you guys have some plans for the future, you just want to make sure that that knowledge carries on and that leadership skills and those delegation skills are going to translate really nicely to professional life. So, this whole experience seems to allow, you know, students to be able to experience a lot of what you eventually will in your professional life. And honestly, I’m kind of jealous of both of you because the project that you’re on sounds, from what you’re describing, so realistic to what you would be doing professionally that it just, it seems like it’s going to set you up for success. Dustin, do you have plans after you’re done with your education? Are you going to go into something like this? I guess, did it spark enough passion in you and actually going through this project to pursue something very similar?
Dustin Preece: Definitely. Like, before the project, I actually didn’t have a good idea of what systems engineering was. And I found it’s kind of the glue that brings a lot of things together. It’s more of a people-oriented role. And I didn’t think that I would like that as much as I discovered that I did. I did like that. I like working with people, I like meeting with people, talking out designs. And it’s that human relations concept that I discovered in myself. Project management is something that I would definitely like to be involved with in the future. And, you know, something systems engineering related, but we’ll have to see what opportunities arise once I’m done my degree. It’s kind of all up in the air and we see what the universe provides type thing.
Host: [Laughter] I love the approach. That’s awesome. Yeah. Arliss, you must have a very similar experience. You’ve had a little bit of everything as you mentioned, rising through the ranks, right? So you’ve been on the technical side, the finance side, you’ve been a leader. I wonder if any of these experiences have influenced where you eventually want to go. And actually, aren’t you on an internship right now?
Arliss Sidloski: Yes. Yeah. I am on an internship right now. And what I’ve found through the project is I do really enjoy the project management side. I still appreciate that there is a lot I need to learn on the design side before I can be a really effective project manager. So when I was looking for internships, I was like looking for the things where I can keep building my design skills. And at the same time, also keep working on my project management skills.
Host: Awesome. Very good. Yeah. Wishing you guys all the best. But, and it seems like just, the roles you’re in, you’ve taken on– I like what you said, Arliss, the thing that Dustin mentioned, you’re going to get out of the project, what you put into the project. And I think both of you are representative of putting a lot in and, you know, as a result, getting a lot out. And which is absolutely wonderful. But, you know, we’ve talked so much about the overarching roles and what you’ve done. But we haven’t gotten a chance to talk about this CubeSat. You know, you’ve mentioned spending so much time on this project, but I wanted to first address sort of what this is and why it’s in space now about to be deployed and what it’s going to do? Arliss, maybe we could start with you just talking about, you know, we’re talking about CubeSats and we’re talking about what RADSAT-SK is, but how would you describe in general, what it is that this project you guys have been working on? What exactly it is?
Arliss Sidloski: So a CubeSat is a small satellite. Yeah, there’s typically like four different types of missions that CubeSats are used for. So that includes like technology demonstration, scientific research, commercial, or an educational project. Our satellite is what’s called a 2U CubeSat. So, a U is 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. And so, with our 2U cube satellite, ours is 10 by 10 by 20 centimeters. And so, our satellite has two payloads on board our CubeSat. One of them is an experimental dosemeter board that was developed by the U. Sask (University of Saskatchewan) electrical and computer engineering professor, Dr. Li Chen, and his team. And then the second one is a melanin coating that is purified from G. simplex, and that’s for radiation shielding. And is part of Dr. Ekaterina Dadachova’s team’s research. So the dosemeter board includes a number of low-cost experimental MOSFETs (metal oxide field effect transistor), and this demonstrates a linear relationship between the output and total absorbed dose during ground testing. And then a commercial RADFET (Radiation Sensing Field Effect Transmitter), which is used for calibration and comparison purposes. So some of these MOSFETs are covered with the Melanin coating that was developed by Dr. Dadachova. And there’s increasing melanin content across the samples. And this is being used to test the feasibility of using melanin as a cosmic radiation shielding method in space.
Host: Very interesting stuff. You guys had to reach out and find really good research to put onto your CubeSat. Dustin, let me go to you for a second to focus on the CubeSat stuff. When you think about, because you mentioned systems, right? One of the things you’re passionate about is systems engineering. When you talk, when you think about a CubeSat and what makes a CubeSat work, how you’re going, how the CubeSat can fly, how the CubeSat can communicate, how the CubeSat can host these different research experiments, and give the scientists the data that they’re looking for. When you look at the different systems, what is it that you and your group were focused on to make this a very robust, very successful CubeSat?
Dustin Preece: So, the key components in a CubeSat is obviously, you have a frame that houses everything inside of it, and then you have to have a power system that’s going to power everything. So, that usually takes the form of a battery and then a power distribution board and your solar panels or whatever source of energy that you’re using. And then you need to have a computer that’s going to talk to all the components inside and make sure that, you know, data is being processed properly. And then you need a communication system, that makes sure that we’re able to communicate to the satellites. So that involves a transceiver that does all of your modulation between digital information to your RF (radiofrequency) signals. And you need an antenna to basically send out the radio waves down to Earth that you use a ground station to communicate back and forth with the antenna. And then, last but not least, is your payload. So whatever your research is, you have your payload boards that would be on board, and those would all be integrated in electronically and through your digital bus. We use something called a CubeSat kit bus. And that’s what puts all of our boards together so that they’re all sharing an electrical system and they’re all sharing the same data system.
Host: And so, when you’re trying to start from scratch, and you start building a CubeSat, were you given like a template, like a set of instructions? Like, this is what you need in order to create and host a CubeSat?
Dustin Preece: We got a lot of help from the CSA, basically. Different design requirements. Another thing I forgot to mention earlier too, is you need an attitude determination control system so that you know what way you’re facing and if you have requirements to rotate and face your satellite a certain way for, say, an optical payload or something like that. So an attitude determination control system is something else that would be on a satellite.
And so, the CSA kind of gave us guidelines of certain requirements. And we had some help from, you know, some professors and then just people who are very– a few of our key members were very keen and brought a lot of knowledge into it, and they did a lot of the research that was required to know what all goes into a CubeSat. So none of us were experts going into this. I don’t want to claim that we’re experts now, but we know way more than when we started, and we realize there’s still so much more to learn. The more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn. And that was evident throughout the project that every little bit that we learned, we realized we had so much more to learn.
Host: You know, I think even focusing on one aspect of the different components of what makes a CubeSat work is the ground station. You said, even right now, you’re making sure that things are ready for the upcoming deployment. And so that’s what you’re working on over the summer is the ground station. What sorts of things are you doing to make sure that that’s ready to go?
Dustin Preece: So last weekend, we completed the physical assembly of our ground station. And anytime you do something for the first time, you’re going to make little mistakes. So one thing we did was, our directional antennas, we mounted them the wrong way. So now on our control, when we hit down, it goes up, and when we hit up, it goes down. So that’s one thing this weekend now that we got to flip those antennas around and, you know, just small little mistakes. It doesn’t kill the project, but it’s just funny that you make a lot of beginner mistakes going through. And I think that even going, you know, later on, these mistakes can be made even with experience. B
But we’re basically making sure that our tracking system works well and that our data system, that when we’re bringing the telemetry down from the satellite, it’s going to be logged and saved in our computer, and that we make sure that this valuable research data is going to make it to the ground. So we’re going to be basically pinging and trying to communicate with a few open satellites and listening to maybe the repeater, the ham radio repeater on the International Space Station, make sure that we can accurately track the International Space Station, because our satellite, when it’s deployed, it’ll be in a very, very similar trajectory and very similar orbit. So as long as we’re able to track the ISS, we should be able to track our own satellite. That’s the theory and we’re hoping that holds true in practice as well. Arliss, do you have anything to add about the ground station and what we’re doing? I know that you might be coming out to help us a little bit when we make revisions this weekend?
Arliss Sidloski: No, I think you covered it well.
Host: Very good. Yeah. You guys have been working so hard to get to this moment, and I just want to go kind of back in time here and think about just how this thing all started, because I mentioned this up top, I think what’s one of the things that’s particularly special, not only about this CubeSat and the research that you guys are doing, but this is going to be the first satellite from Saskatchewan. And I know you guys are pretty pumped about that. And there’s, you know, there’s a lot of pride in that. But because it’s the first right, that means you guys didn’t have a lot of, I assume, right? I assume that you, you didn’t have a lot of, there wasn’t, there was… I don’t even know how you would even hear of this in Saskatchewan if no one in Saskatchewan was doing it beforehand. So, Arliss, if I can toss it to you real quick and just talk about just how the University of Saskatchewan ended up having this research project team, the RADSAT-SK team, how that all sort of began. If you’re able to take us back in time.
Arliss Sidloski: Yeah, for sure. So the start of the project, so the CSA put out an AO (Announcement of Opportunity) and I…
Host: What’s an AO?
Arliss Sidloski:…this was all before…an Announcement of Opportunity.
And this was before both Dustin and my time on the project. So this is just from the stories that we’ve heard, but my understanding was that there was a group of students who are interested in it. And in order to have like a project like through the university, then you have to have a faculty advisor. So, one of our primary investigators, Dr. Sean Maw, and he is a bit of a funny story with how the project got started, and how he was approached to be a be the faculty advisor of this project. And he was told that, “oh, like no time commitment, like, really not that big of a deal. Like the students will do everything, not really that much from a faculty standpoint.” And now he regularly meets with us, and those meetings are two hours a week plus whatever other meetings we have, aside from just those update meetings. And there’s lots of behind the scene work that he does. So a lot bigger of a time commitment than he had originally signed on for, but we’re grateful that he continued with the project despite this.
Host: It’s a smart move, right? To get suckered in saying, “oh, it’s going to be easy, no problem.” And then, yeah. And the next thing you know, that time commitment goes up, but you’re fully embedded. So, oh, that’s great though, that you guys stuck around with it. Yeah because you’re hearing these stories. And that’s an important point I think to hone in on is, when you guys entered the project, it was relatively already established, but you had a lot of work to do. Arliss, if you recall, when you first sort of entered the project, whereabout was the CubeSat, was the team relative to what we’re seeing now? Completion, ready for deployment, you know, give us a sense of like the timeline and this process, and what it’s taken to get us to this point. Where did you first start when you joined the project?
Arliss Sidloski: So I joined the project in the summer of 2020. The original grant was signed in December of 2017. So work began on the project in 2018. So by the time I came in the summer of 2020, the team was gearing up for PDR, which is the Preliminary Design Review with the CSA, with the Canadian Space Agency. So we had a successful presentation and during like those first couple of months, I was still just trying to figure out like what exactly a CubeSat was, like, what are we trying to accomplish?
And then, yeah. Honestly, I couldn’t even really say where the team was at when I first joined because it was just, it was such a big learning curve to go from high school to like helping design a CubeSat. But as I got more into the project, like something that we realized– at the end of 2022, so the end of last school year, we came to the conclusion that we, as a team, were really good at presentations. And every time we had a design review with the CSA or with others external to our team, we did a really good job of presenting and being like, “OK, like this is our plan. Like this is where we’re at.” But then we didn’t have all the details sorted out. So, at the end of 2022, we really entered a crunch time because there was a lot of testing to do. We found out that testing takes an enormous amount of time. Way more than we ever would’ve thought. And of course, when you test, things don’t always go smoothly. So yeah, I guess that’s kind of where we were when I started. And then, by end of 2022, the crunch time was on and then basically it was really fast paced for us because we were trying to work through a bunch of design stages that should have been done months prior to that last summer. So like for instance, we ended up having to redesign our timer board, and that’s something that like, usually you would have your design frozen by then, but for various reasons, it wasn’t. So we redesigned an entire board, and then had it manufactured and other things went wrong while we were testing, before we were finally able to fully assemble our CubeSat and ship it out the door for integration in March of 2023.
Host: Wow. I want to go over to Dustin here for a second and build off of what you were just saying, Arliss, because I think one thing that was important is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, whenever you were telling this story, but from what it sounds like, when you first started the project, nothing was physical quite yet. It was all part of the design. You guys were doing presentations and reviews and concepts and trying to go back and forth on making sure that when you actually did start cutting hardware and putting things together that you had a really good, really robust concept. And then you talked about the testing and everything, too. But Dustin, you’ve been with the project, you’ve mentioned you were with the project really, really long. Can you talk about that a little bit? Just the whole design process and, you know, it takes a while until you actually build the CubeSat, or did you guys do some mock-ups ahead of time, and what that whole process was like?
Dustin Preece: So yeah, I was a little bit earlier in the project than Arliss. So when I came in, the design, it was kind of cemented in what components we wanted, but we hadn’t done a good process at that point of documenting our design process. And so, I came into the systems team and that was one of, Jeremy Rempel was our systems lead at the time. And that was one of the things that he wanted to spearhead was a good documentation process, making sure that our design requirements, system requirements were all flushed out and that we weren’t missing any elements. And it became apparent to me that we kind of put the cart before the horse in our design process. Many of us, I guess, early on, were very gung-ho, very enthusiastic, and the various subteams all went out. And since we were taking approach to get most of our components off the shelf, rather than make them in-house, it was believed that that would simplify the project. So, a lot of subteams just went out and picked the components that they thought met the functionality that they desired. The only thing that we discovered later on was that some of the pin outs of these components were incompatible with each other. And that’s because we didn’t do this thorough documentation process early on. And to make sure that, you know, before we pulled the trigger on buying things, that the actual interfaces between them were all compatible with each other. So again, it was something that I mentioned before that, in the organization, one of the big risks is kind of a siloing and not enough communication between subteams to make sure that various components are compatible with each other.
So we ended up having to kind of reroute a few different things in our bus just to make sure that– like, our computer was getting turned off by one of our components because it was grounding out a key pin on the computer. So we had to do quite a bit of troubleshooting after the fact, just to make things work together. When we thought that, you know, we should just plug these things in together and they should all work. But that was not the case. Nothing would work at all. And then we had to figure out why? So again, design is iterative, you know, you kind of have your problem, you design towards your solution, and then you find the holes in it and you come back and you kind of do a process over and over until you distill a design that is, you know, space worthy. And that’s something that the entire team had to learn. That this isn’t just, you pick a solution and it’s just all going to work. It doesn’t magically just all work. There’s always problems. So, you know, I think that that’s one thing that looking back that don’t try to make things complex from the beginning because even simple designs are going to incur complexity throughout the process. And it’s been very eye-opening, very humbling in that way.
Host: What you’re describing, Dustin is just so reflective of just what spaceflight, you know, what is actually in spaceflight, and you got to live it. You got to live the lessons and learn the lessons, and you can apply that going forward. In this moment Dustin, as we’re sitting here and we’re just a couple of weeks away from deployment, can you talk about your level of confidence? You know, you’ve done the iterative design, you’ve tested this out, you’ve worked out the kinks, you’ve gone through that process, you know, from when you got to a level of confidence to say, you know what, this is flight ready. How are you feeling in this moment?
Dustin Preece: I, again, you know, I don’t want to incur the wrath of some fateful entity by saying that it’s going to work. But I think it’s going to work. Like, we did thorough testing. We hit so many road bumps and we had times where we thought this thing is never going to make it. You know, we had a couple times where we thought, “this is it, we have to pull the plug.” But we had some keen members that, you know, they would look for some shred of hope and then they would just breathe life into this, just putting all their time and energy into this little bit of hope. And then it became a viable solution, and we found our way forward. And we did that time and time again that this team, I’m just always awestruck by the people that I’ve been surrounded with and interacted with in this journey, because they did miraculous things, you know, like they always made the impossible possible again, over and over again. And we did that enough that I think the major things that could really be things that kill the satellite in space, I think we hit enough hurdles that we shouldn’t hit the major hurdles in space because we hit them here on the ground. So I’m fairly confident that we’re going to talk to our satellite.
Host: That’s good. I love the approach that you just took, Dustin. I would couch it as sort of like a reserved optimism, right? You’re very hopeful, you feel like you’ve done the work, but you’re very realistic, you’re very grounded in your approach that– because if you think about it, this CubeSat is, you know, being flight ready, being ready for flight is just ready for almost another demonstration because you’ve done a lot of different testing, but you haven’t actually run this thing in the actual flight environment yet. And so, you’ve done everything, but it’s just another thing. So there’s always that reservation. But, I very much appreciate the optimism. Arliss, going to you for a second, talking about next steps. So, we’re coming on the deployment, Dustin’s working on the ground station. Sounds like you’re going to be heading over this weekend to help him out and just make sure everything’s ready. What are the next steps from, you know, talking today, getting through those checks over the weekend and preparing for that deployment? What do you guys have yet to do to get ready?
Arliss Sidloski: Dustin covered this one pretty well. Just getting the ground station ready, figuring out what our protocols are going to be for communication. Like how we’re going to make contact, who’s going to be responsible for the contact. Yeah. But biggest thing right now that we’re trying to wrap up is the ground station work. Like Dustin said, we now have it assembled and now we’re just working on tweaking things to make sure that it’ll operate properly when we go to try to make contact.
Host: And so, what is that like after, you know, once you go through this work and you actually see the deployment, you got the ground station up and running, so you’re receiving the data. What does operations of the CubeSat look like?
Arliss Sidloski: I’m going to pass this one over to Dustin.
Dustin Preece: So right now, we don’t have things fully automated by software. We do have our software team working on that, but as it stands right now, our antennas are very directional. So basically, allows us to use a lower power antenna to communicate with our satellite in orbit. But in order for us to do that, we have to make sure the antenna is pointing at the satellite. So, the tracking system has to basically follow it from horizon to horizon as it goes overhead. And we have to have someone there currently for every pass that we want to get telemetry down, we have to have someone initiate that pass, put in the parameters of where the satellite is going to be tracked in orbit above us. And so, there’s a bit of a manual operation that basically, there’ll be some times at night, one in the morning, two in the morning, that we’ll have to have an operations member go out there and just initiate that, “the pass,” we call it. And just basically, so it tracks the satellite, sends a signal, says, you know, “hello, talk to me, you know, do you have any information for me?” And then we start pulling that data down and then save it into the ground station computer, back it up, and then make sure that eventually it gets to the researchers and they, you know, do everything that they’re going to do with it, write their papers, and basically make the living legacy of the satellite. Because the satellite, it’s a product that, you know, it has a short lifespan eventually is going to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere. So it’s not the legacy of the project. The legacy is basically, the outreach, you know, getting people interested in aerospace and space sector technologies. And it’s the research and the data that is going to hopefully make it cheaper for us to go to space, improve the way that we protect ourselves from radiation and monitor radiation. So, I think I gave you a very long-winded kind of answer to what ground station operations are going to look like. But basically, it’s that, until we get it automated, until we have it scheduled with software, there’ll be a person that has to initiate the communication with the satellite every time it goes overhead.
Host: Oh, definitely not long-winded at all. In fact, it’s that level of detail that we’re looking for. Love the in-depth description of what it’s like. And just as you know, as I’m thinking about the cadence of these, right? You talked about maybe late-night shifts and overnight sort of things. How often can we expect based on the project trajectory, if you’re talking about it’s very similar to the International Space Station, how often do you expect the trajectory of your CubeSat to pass over Saskatchewan where you’ll get these ground passes? Is it daily? Is it every couple of days? What are we looking at?
Dustin Preece: Yeah, pretty much every single day we get passes and we get about five passes on average a day. Sometimes we’ll get more than that, sometimes less, and they’re all a varying length, so it depends on how high above us it’s going to be. So I haven’t seen it come above, I think around 80 degrees or so in our horizon. So it’s not going into our northern sky, it’s only in our southern sky. So that limits the amount of time that it’s actually going to be arcing across our sky. So our pass length is limited, fortunately the data that we’re downloading, it’s not very large. It’s just, you know, voltage measurements with timestamps. That’s our predominant data, and that’s very small amounts of data. So we only need a few minutes of pass time every day to get all the data that we need. So we could potentially just get one of the longer passes and that would cover it every single day. But again, like you were saying the ISS because it’s in, you know, a certain orbit and Earth is rotating below it, it kind of changes when it’s going above us every single day. So eventually, it’ll be like, I think most of our passes that we’re looking at around deployment are going to be like either very early morning or kind of like around midnight type thing. But eventually, it’ll come around that we’ll have daytime passes so people will, you know, go there during the day and initiate passes. And then again, like I was describing before, ultimately, we’d like to schedule it with software that we have software that automates it so that we don’t have to have a person there to initiate the pass and that the software will automatically know, OK, I can expect the satellite to be above us at this time. I initiate the pass, I downlink everything, and then it’s all kind of scheduled ahead of time, and we just have to maintain that schedule and make sure that everything’s working every couple days type thing.
Host: Perfect. Yeah, you’re, you’re already thinking about those next steps and evolving the operations and evolving everything, and sort of on that back to you, Arliss for just a second, I think you guys are already thinking about the next CubeSat, right? What plans do you have? Now obviously, you want to see through the successful deployment and operations, make sure these passes are good and continue to learn from that and build on that. But are you guys already thinking about the next one?
Arliss Sidloski: Yeah. We’ve already started rolling on the next one. At the beginning of June, the CSA announced the recipients of grants for their CUBICS initiative, which is for the next CubeSat project. And our team was fortunate enough to have received a grant for this next one as well. So, yeah, we’ve already started rolling on the next CubeSat, working through our design process. And we’re looking forward, we have our first review with the CSA scheduled for some time in October.
Host: That’s very exciting. Congratulations. And I actually wanted to sort of wrap up with this thought is, you know, you guys have worked so hard on this satellite RADSAT-SK, you’re already talking about those next steps. And, and I think what’s coming across to me is just how meaningful this is to you. But going back to the fact that this is, you know, the first satellite from Saskatchewan, I wonder if you guys can both give us a sense of, kind of focusing a little bit on what this project means to you and being able to work on it for so long, and get to this moment right before deployment and all that hard work and sweat and going back and forth, that’s really been put into this project, the love that’s been put into this project. But I wonder what this means for your community as well, what this means for Saskatchewan, what this means for the community? And if you guys can give us a sense of what it’s like there and what this means to the university and to the surrounding areas. Arliss, we’ll start with you.
Arliss Sidloski: Yeah. Well, starting small with just our team. Like it was this whole, this achievement, it was such a big team thing to do, like, it wasn’t any individual that made it possible. It was a team project. And so, we developed like really strong relationships as a team. Like all of our best friends are now on the project. And then building out from there, like, this is Saskatchewan. Most people are from small towns. So when our members are on this like, big project that’s going to space, like it’s so cool! All the little communities that everyone’s from, they get so excited. I’m from southern Saskatchewan town called Weyburn, I don’t know, like 10,000 people. And like as soon as it launched, I had the newspaper editor texting me, like, “what was it like? Like, tell us about your experience.” And that’s what it was like for everyone. So everyone’s getting to do these interviews with their local radio stations and newspapers and, yeah. It’s a really big deal for Saskatchewan, and I hope that we inspire other younger students to get involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Like, as a prairie province, it’s mostly like agriculture or oil field. And I’m hoping that we inspired some younger students to be inspired by STEM and by aerospace. And realize that even if they are from Saskatchewan, like they can still be a part of the aerospace programs.
Host: Yeah. The skies of Saskatchewan are not the limit. I love it. Very meaningful, very powerful words, Arliss, thank you very much. Dustin, over to you. I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience and personal as well. What does this project mean to you and to those you know?
Dustin Preece: Yeah. So first I just want to give a little bit of credit to projects that happened before us. So we’ve had other satellites that have been designed in Saskatchewan in the past, but none of them had been designed, and fully developed, and now made it to space. We’ve had other satellites that were designed that were more atmospheric studies satellites. But I believe they were built out of province, and it was just the initial design that happened here in the physics department at the U of S. But so, giving that credit and that transparency to those that came before us. To me, I grew up watching “Star Trek,” so I wanted to be on the Enterprise, and I wanted to be out in space, and that was what I wanted to do when I grew up as a little boy. Obviously, I can’t do that. So getting as close to that by being involved in a project like this where we’re actually putting something into orbit. It’s going to be in the vacuum of space, and we’re helping develop technologies that will make space travel safer and cheaper for astronauts. You know, that little boy is pretty happy inside me, that I got to do something that is making that future that I saw in “Star Trek” a reality. And it’s been a lifelong opportunity. Like one of my earliest goals is being fulfilled through this project. Of course, I want to do it in larger, more grandiose ways in the future if I can. But regardless, you know, part of what I’ve done is going, touching the sky, going beyond. And, you know, it has been some of the things that I’ve talked to my family about the most. They’ve been behind me supporting me, and then going to the rural communities that you come from, and then people’s like, “Oh, it’s you! You’re doing the space thing. This guy’s famous!” And you know, it’s pretty funny. But it’s fun, everyone’s very proud and happy that, you know, we are getting to make our mark and we’re getting to show off that, you know, we’re farmers here, but we’re more than that. And, you know, it’s part of those skills that you learn out on the farm that actually get us through on a project like this. Because on a farm, you only have limited resources and you can expect the unexpected. And that’s the same thing that we did in the satellite project. We had a limited budget and a lot of things we didn’t expect propped up, and you just had to kind of collect, “OK, what do we have at our disposal? What can we do? What are our options?” And you find a way forward. And so, I think it’s that farm mentality of innovation and creativity that actually has helped a lot of our members find solutions and find the path forward that brought us to success.
Host: I love those words, too, Dustin. This is just insane. Just the, the experience that you guys bring and the impact that it means to you and the community and just what this means. This is a very powerful story, and I appreciate you both coming on to Houston We Have a Podcast to share this with us. And what this means when we’re able to extend the opportunity of deploying CubeSats from the International Space Station, working with our international partners and Canadian Space Agency that make their way to small towns, to communities that don’t often get to do this. Hearing your words and hearing the impact that it has, certainly resonates with me and I hope it resonates with others as well. So, to Dustin, to Arliss, thank you both for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast and sharing these stories and wishing you for sure the best of luck with the deployment, the operations, and everything you guys have going forward. So appreciate your time. Thank you very much.
Dustin Preece: Thank you, Gary. It’s, it’s been an honor and a pleasure.
Arliss Sidloski: Yep. Thanks for having us on.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I really enjoyed today’s conversation with Dustin and Arliss. To hear their passion behind everything they did to actually make the CubeSats design, and the fabrication, and all the hard work that they put into it truly resonated with me. And it kind of shows what the International Space Station brings to not just, you know, the astronauts on board, but it trickles down to these small communities and to students that you wouldn’t really think would have an, an opportunity to get something into space, but it all became possible for them. So it was an absolute pleasure to get to talk with them and to really hear their passion behind, behind everything that they did to get to that moment. It’s not the only kind of student project that we have. Students have opportunities to get one of the things that they build, that they actually design and build on the International Space Station. You can check out a lot of them at NASA.gov/ISS. If you go to NASA.gov/podcasts, we are there as well as a number of other podcasts that you can talk to. But we’ve actually had quite a number of students that actually designed and built something that went on the International Space Station. You can go back and listen to any of our episodes when you go to that page in no particular order. And if you want to tell us about your own experience or maybe ask a question for Houston We Have a Podcast. We’re on social media as well. You can find us on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and just use the hashtag #AskNASA and make sure to mention us for Houston We Have a Podcast so we can flag it, see it, and possibly respond, and maybe even make a cool episode out of it. This episode was recorded on June 22nd, 2023. Thanks to Will Flato, Justin Herring, Dane Turner, Heidi Lavelle, Abby Graf, Belinda Pulido, Jaden Jennings, and Destiny Doran. Thanks to Denis Tran and Tony Pellerin from the Canadian Space Agency for helping to coordinate this. And of course, thanks again to Arliss Sidloski and Dustin Preece for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.