Why Giving Matters

LAUNCHING A MISSION TO OPEN ACCESS TO OUTER SPACE

June 11, 2019

By Dinah Zeldin

Paul Albert-Lebrun, BEng’18, and Félix Valin, BSc’19, come from different fields of study but share the same passion: making knowledge about outer space accessible to all.

Albert-Lebrun created the McGill Space Group (MSG) in 2015 to foster an interdisciplinary approach to space studies by bringing together students from across faculties. His efforts were a success, drawing over 40 students from Science, Arts and Education.

“It was beautiful to see,” Albert-Lebrun says. “You have engineers that see the world a certain way, and arts students who see it in a totally different way. You get to hear all these different viewpoints.”

Valin, a physics student, was among the first to jump on board, drawn to the group’s focus on education outreach.

“When I was a kid I was really interested in space, but none of my teachers were addressing the topic in class. It was something that was always lacking for me in my education,” he explains. “I want to make this lack of space education disappear for the next generation.”

Preparing the next generation for blast off

The MSG began developing interactive presentations for primary and secondary schools, CEGEPs and the general public.

“Someday we’re not just going to be engineers and scientists working on space stuff, it’s going to be an interdisciplinary endeavor,” Valin says. “I want to show kids that the space industry isn’t just for really smart people, or for math people. It’s for everybody.”

In 2018, the student group (some members pictured below) held an interactive presentation at the Cosmodome Space Science Centre in Laval, Quebec, where they explained how satellites work, and let participants build their own models using basic construction materials. Later, it joined forces with Explore McGill, an initiative that exposes high school students to university life and learning, to run space workshops at Montreal-area schools.

The MSG also plays a leading role in connecting space industry stakeholders. It helped establish the Montreal Student Space Associations (MSSA), which is made up of similar groups from Concordia, Polytechnique Montréal, École de technologie supérieure and Université de Sherbrooke. The MSSA went on to organize the Montreal Space Symposium.

The first event of its kind in Canada, the Symposium brings together students, researchers and industry leaders to share knowledge and network. The inaugural event at Montreal’s Palais des congrès in 2017 featured a keynote address from Sylvain Laporte, president of the Canadian Space Agency. And in 2018, the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CSDC), a Canada-wide competition challenging university students to design and build a satellite, held its launch at the Symposium.

Going to space on a shoestring

To compete in the CSDC, teams have two years to design and build a satellite with a predefined mission. When Albert-Lebrun started the MSG, its mission was to build a satellite with a star tracker: a technology that determines the satellite’s orientation by capturing photographs of surrounding stars and using their positioning to make calculations.

“Designing the satellite was an extremely rigorous process,” Albert-Lebrun says. “When you have a problem with your car you can bring it in to the garage, but you can’t do that with a satellite. It’s launched into space and you can never touch it again, so everything has to be perfect for the whole mission.”

Although the MSG didn’t complete the star tracker on time for the CSDC’s challenge, the project is still in development. The technology will be installed aboard a satellite built by Polytechnique students, who have secured funding to launch their device in 2021.

The star tracker is being assembled at a fraction of the cost of its predecessors. “A low-level star tracker usually costs about $30,000 to build. We’re still testing it, but we’ve put it together for under $1,000,” says Valin, the MSG’s director for the past academic year.

The team is also working hard on adapting their device for the CSDC’s current challenge — a “selfie satellite,” which will receive email requests for photos of locations on Earth, and will capture and transmit those images when it passes over the specified location.

Lessons learned fueling future endeavours

Albert-Lebrun and Valin both feel leading the MSG has been rewarding, and has taught them skills they couldn’t have acquired in the classroom.

“I think the group is important for people like me, who learn by doing,” says Albert-Lebrun.

Skills he acquired, such as being able to manage a team, will serve Albert-Lebrun well as he pursues his career in the space industry.

For Valin, who’s entering graduate studies in physics at the McGill Space Institute and plans to pursue a career in academia, the lessons learned are also relevant.

“I learned how to be a good presence in a classroom and make sure everybody feels they’re important. That was meaningful for me, because teaching and space are my passions. If I can teach about space, I’m happy,” he says.

Support student initiatives like the MSG by making a gift to the Faculty of Engineering’s Student Initiatives Fund.