With the launch of its first satellite, student team charts a course to new knowledge

“We worked on this project for so long with such a narrow focus that actually seeing it deployed was very rewarding”

A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Nov. 11, 2023, carrying a satellite designed and built by the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (photo courtesy of SpaceX)

Students in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering recently gathered in the basement of the Sandford Fleming Building – known to many as “The Pit” – to witness the deployment of HERON Mk. II into space.  

The 3U CubeSat satellite, built and operated by the space systems division of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT), was launched into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket on Nov. 11, 2023 as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-9 rideshare mission that lifted off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc, Calif.  

The feat was entirely student funded with support from U of T Engineering through student levies and UTAT-led fundraising efforts.   

“The experience of the launch was very surreal,” says master’s degree student Benjamin Nero, HERON’s current mission manger.  

“We worked on this project for so long with such a narrow focus that actually seeing it deployed was very rewarding.”   

“There are any number of things that could go wrong that might prevent a satellite from deploying,” adds Zachary Teper, a fellow master’s degree candidate who is part of the technical development team working on HERON’s ground station. 

“So, watching each of the call outs coming out of the SpaceX mission control, seeing the rocket go up and meet every one of its mission objectives and then finally seeing our satellite get ejected out of the dispenser in the correct trajectory was a big relief – because we knew that it was finally in space and on the right path.” 

Members of the UTAT space systems division gather on the sixth-floor roof of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology with the fully assembled ground station (photo by UTAT Space Systems)

Launching HERON – short for High frequency Educational Radio communications On a Nanosatellite – was the culmination of years of teamwork that brought together the efforts of more than 100 students. 

HERON Mk. II, the second iteration of UTAT’s spacecraft, was originally designed and built between 2016 and 2018 for the fourth edition of the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge. Since space systems division was formed in 2014, many of the students who worked on the initial HERON design and build have since graduated. But the current operations team continued to develop the satellite and renew the student levy that allowed them to secure their space launch.  

“The original objective for HERON was to conduct a biology experiment in space,” says Nero, who joined the team in 2019 during his second year of undergraduate studies. “But because of delays in the licensing process, we were unable to continue that mission objective. So, we re-scoped and shifted our focus to amateur radio communication and knowledge building.”  

From left to right: HERON Mk. I (2016), HERON Mk. II Prototype (2018), HERON Mk. II Softstack (2020), HERON Mk. II Flight Model (2021) (photos by UTAT Space Systems)

Once the satellite’s final assembly was completed in 2021, the team began flight model testing and assembling a ground station, while also managing the logistics of the regulatory approvals needed to complete the launch.  

“It’s difficult to put something in space, both technically and bureaucratically,” says Nero. “There are a lot of different governments that care about what you’re doing and want to know when and how you’re doing it.” 

Getting to space was a significant milestone for the team, but it’s still only the beginning of their work. 

“The goal for us as a design team is to start gathering institutional knowledge that we didn’t have before,” says Reid Sox-Harris, an undergraduate student who is HERON’s ground station manager and the electrical lead for UTAT’s next space mission, FINCH (Field Imaging Nanosatellite for Crop residue Hyperspectral mapping). 

“We’ve never operated a satellite. So, we’re taking a lot of lessons learned with us through this process.”   

For example, when a satellite is deployed for the first time, the ground control team only has a rough idea of its movement and eventual location. They must simulate the launch to figure out exactly where it is before they can establish a connection. And when they receive new positional data, they must rerun their simulation.  

“We have to take into account effects such as air resistance, or the sun’s solar cycles and the gravitational effects of the sun, the moon and the Earth – it’s a fairly complicated simulation,” Sox-Harris says. 

Nero adds: “Part of the difficulty with a simulation is that a model is only useful for a certain period. An old estimate could result in as much as a few kilometres of drift from the satellite’s actual position per day.”

HERON’s ground station on the roof of the Bahen Centre (photo by UTAT Space Systems)

The team was not only tasked with designing a ground station capable of communicating with a satellite more than 500 kilometres away, but one that can survive a frigid and snowy Canadian winter.

“For any project, the most important thing you should be doing is testing,” says second-year student Swarnava Ghosh, who primarily works on the ground station software.  “One challenge with our ground station currently is that there are too many variables that are not fully tested – and everything needs to be perfect in the chain for the communication to work. If the ground station is not pointing in the right direction, we won’t get a signal and we won’t establish communication. And if the amplifier is not working, then we won’t establish communication.”  

The team is confident that they will ultimately resolve any outstanding issues and establish communications with HERON. More importantly, they will be able to take what they’ve learned and apply it to the next mission.

“With FINCH, we want to make sure the ground station software and satellite can communicate on the ground,” says Sox-Harris. “Right now, there are over 500 kilometres between the satellite and ground station, so we can’t fly up there and test whether a command has worked.” 

FINCH is set to launch in late 2025 on a rideshare rocket flight. Its current mission objective is to generate hyperspectral imaging maps of crop residue on farm fields in Manitoba from a low-Earth orbit.   

There are many technical developments that are new to FINCH that weren’t applicable to HERON, the team says, including a novel optic system for remote sensing that is being developed by students.  

“The risks associated with FINCH are mitigated by the work that is being performed by HERON right now. We’re learning many lessons that will be directly applicable to our next mission, and we’ll continue to learn from HERON for at least another year or more,” says Sox-Harris. 

“This means the FINCH mission can be more complicated, it can move faster and ultimately we can have better reliability, which is something that we always strive for in aerospace.”