U of M partners with Magellan Aerospace to give students real-world space engineering experience

the economic benefits the aerospace industry provides to Manitoba are both direct, by having Manitobans employed at a company like Magellan, and indirect.

University of Manitoba (U of M) professor Dr. Philip Ferguson wanted to disrupt an aerospace industry unwilling to try new things.

He said theoretical research gets “stuck” in scientific journals and is never used. He wanted to change this by using the results of these studies for practical purposes in space. 

“I kind of wanted to kick the space industry in the pants a little bit,” said Ferguson, which is why, in 2017, he founded STARLab inside the Engineering and Information Technology Complex on the U of M campus.

STAR stands for Space Technology and Advanced Research.

STARLab’s main room contains a long, shallow trough filled with gravel for testing various types of rover wheels. There is also a space in the middle surrounded by netting to conduct tests with drones. Students sit at computers analyzing test results. 

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A drone at the University of Manitoba’s Space Technology and Advanced Research Lab. In addition to having a small space in the lab for drone research, the university also has a new lab called Drone Zone, funded by Prairies Economic Development Canada (PrairiesCan) the federal department that promotes economic growth in the prairie provinces. Drone Zone is housed in a medium-sized warehouse near the airport that is fitted with eight Vicon tracking cameras. PHOTO BY Rob Swystun

A focus of STARLab is to find ways to make space more accessible and less costly. 

For example, U of M engineered the Iris CubeSat, a satellite smaller than a two-litre milk carton. It uses off-the-shelf components that one could find in a cellphone. Its antenna is made from a part that came from a household tape measure. 

While satellites meant to be in orbit for a long time must use materials to withstand the radiation in space, Iris, which will only be in rotation for about a year, doesn’t need to be fortified. 

Radiation-hardened materials are expensive. Using unprotected supplies cuts the cost. However, Ferguson said, the trade-off is that the satellite is more susceptible to space weather like solar wind, bursts of charged particles coming from the sun that can wreak havoc on electrical equipment.  

The sun has periods of low and high solar activity, like solar wind, that last for a decade, and the sun just entered a high cycle of solar activity. 

Ferguson said the team monitoring Iris thought they may have had a system reset due to active solar weather the day the satellite ejected into orbit from the International Space Station on July 6th. But it is currently operational and sending data back to Earth. 

The joint University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg satellite that was recently ejected into orbit from the International Space Station. PHOTO COURTESY OF UM TODAY

“Our latest tracking information is showing that we’re roughly a thousand kilometres away from the space station right now, and that distance is increasing,” said Ferguson, who is also the Magellan Industrial Research Chair at U of M. 

Rover motion

STARLab also aims to improve how rovers move on other terrestrial bodies. 

Pilots controlling rovers give them what Ferguson described as “very conservative commands” to move in small increments because they don’t want the vehicles getting stuck in sand or have their movement hampered in some other way.

Each command to move the rover a short distance can take around 45 minutes to reach Mars, so movement is slow. 

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is to empower the rovers with tools that will allow it to decide if it’s slipping or not,” Ferguson said, likening such a system to the traction control systems you would find in a car, but more refined. 

STARLab’s rover has numerous sensors and gauges, which the researchers use as they drive it in the gravel-filled trough to test the rover in different scenarios. This helps identify when it might encounter problems. 

Dr. Philip Ferguson shows the gravel-filled trench in the University of Manitoba’s Space Technology and Advanced Research Lab that is used for rover research. Researchers have filled the trench at different times with various materials to try and mimic the surface conditions on the moon and Mars. PHOTO BY Rob Swystun

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Using the data they’ve collected, they can send the rover a command that will help it get itself unstuck, like making its wheel larger or smaller or changing its tread configuration. 

“Part of the other research I’ve had students working on is how do we create a wheel that we can change and morph into different shapes as we’re using it,” Ferguson said.

This research will help the upcoming Canadian lunar rover mission. 

Dr. Philip Ferguson shows a 3D-printed prototype wheel for a lunar or planetary rover in the University of Manitoba’s Space Technology and Advanced Research Lab. This particular wheel prototype has paddles that could slide out from the wheel to help a rover get itself unstuck. PHOTO BY Rob Swystun

Next satellites

Now that the Iris CubeSat is orbiting Earth, the STARLab team, which includes an ever-rotating cast of U of M students, has turned its collective attention to two other projects: ArcticSat and Redwing.


ArcticSat is another cube satellite project made possible through the Canadian Space Agency’s CubeSats Initiative in Canada for STEM (CUBICS) program. 

This CubeSat is being co-developed with the hamlet of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut and will carry a microwave radiometer to image arctic sea ice and assess its thickness.

Student Martin Tkach, who just started his Master’s degree in mechanical engineering at U of M, is studying the feasibility of fitting these tiny cube satellites with a small thruster system so they can manoeuvre better while carrying out missions and deorbit themselves once they become inoperable.

Tkach said the university provides a safe learning environment for working on actual space equipment.

“Unlike at a company, it’s okay to make mistakes,” he said. “We are students, so it’s definitely going to happen.”

ArcticSat will be launched in about two years and should operate for at least one.

A specially modified drone at the University of Manitoba’s Space Technology and Advanced Research Lab. This drone is capable of mimicking the dynamics of spacecraft so researchers can test spacecraft in a 1G environment. For example, researchers can mount a cubesat in this drone and replicate the microgravity environment the cubesat would be experiencing in space. PHOTO BY Rob Swystun


The other satellite project U of M supports with research is the Redwing space domain awareness microsatellite project, directed by Defence Research and Development Canada.

This small satellite will monitor objects in congested orbits. According to a news release from the Canadian Department of Defence, it will be able to record and transmit tracking data from anywhere in its orbit. Redwing will also be able to take images of nearby space objects and monitor those performing unexpected manoeuvres.

The contract to build the Redwing satellite went to Magellan Aerospace.

Magellan Aerospace aims to build Prairie space industry

Magellan Aerospace sponsored Ferguson’s Industrial Research Chair in Satellite Engineering position at U of M through a partnership with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada in 2018.

Over five years, the research chair received $1.25 million in funding through the partnership.

“What we’re doing with Phil and the University of Manitoba is we’re researching various technologies that help our business, but also gives students experience in areas they’re interested in,” said Corey Mack, Magellan’s space unit business lead.

Along with having U of M students conduct research at STARLab that Magellan could use, the aerospace company also shares its Advanced Satellite Integration Facility with the university.

The facility is a giant 6,000 sq. ft. “clean room” housed in Magellan’s headquarters near the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. It’s called a clean room because it must be always kept meticulously clean. 

“We have the students come in here when they’re doing work building up their nanosats or their microsats like they’ve been doing recently,” Mack said during a recent interview and tour of the facility.

To enter the clean room, one must first take an “air shower,” where air streams are blasted over a person to dislodge debris. Researchers must also wear hair nets, lab coats, and shoe coverings with a grounding tether. As a last step before entry, a visitor stands on a device that indicates whether the person is grounded correctly, as any electrostatic discharges (the little jolts of electricity that can occur when you touch an object) could damage sensitive electronic equipment. 

While the clean room was mostly empty on the tour day, two U of M students sat among piles of cables conducting software tests. 

Magellan has eight employees who have come to the company via the university, so partnering with U of M has been good for both students and Magellan. 

Mack said the economic benefits the aerospace industry provides to Manitoba are both direct, by having Manitobans employed at a company like Magellan, and indirect. For example, Mack said Magellan subcontracts work, like parts machining, to other local businesses, and building Manitoba’s aerospace capabilities with its university partnership attracts more aerospace business to Winnipeg. 

“I think what we’re really looking at is trying to build and establish more of an economic base here for space work,” he said.

Attracting talent to Winnipeg can be challenging, Mack noted, making their partnership with the university important, as it provides opportunities within the space industry in Manitoba. 

Along with the Redwing project, Magellan is providing avionics for the CHORUS Earth-observation satellite, a project of Canadian space technology company MDA, and fulfilling various other contracts for clients.

In Part 3 of our space research and development series, we will shift westward and look at how the University of Saskatchewan is helping students gain experience with rockets and satellites. 

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