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Big Falcon Rocket shoots for the moon

University of Toronto Aerospace Team members comment on SpaceX’s latest venture

Big Falcon Rocket shoots for the moon

It has been nearly half a century since Commander Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 became the last human to walk on the moon.

But in September, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced the #dearMoon project — a week-long trip aboard SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to and from lunar orbit in 2023.

Their team plans to traverse the traditional circumlunar trajectory, and take advantage of the gravity of the Earth and moon to point the ship in the right direction, rather than relying on brute engine force.

How has technology changed since the end of Apollo program?

NASA built the Saturn V rocket to send astronauts to the moon as part of the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s. It later replaced the distinctive black-and-white rocket’s design in favour of the reusable Space Shuttle, a more mass-efficient alternative.

Rockets have seen developments since the 1970s. According to Jacob Weber, an engineering student in the University of Toronto Aerospace Team’s (UTAT) Rocketry Division, changes to rockets have been largely economical.

“Advancements in materials, manufacturing techniques, and electronics have all [resulted] in a ‘modernization’ for most rockets making them more efficient in terms of production and performance,” wrote Weber. “As a whole though, I wouldn’t say rockets have changed that much. You can tell that most rockets use the same multiple stage setup with or without some extra boosters on the side.”

In particular, Weber pointed out that the fundamental design of the popular Soviet/Russian series of Soyuz spacecraft has remained largely unchanged since the 1980s.

One of the main selling points of Space Shuttles is their reusability. Traditional rockets are composed of a number of stages — sections of a rocket that contain an engine or a cluster of engines. They break off after use and are either scrapped or recycled upon falling to Earth.

But SpaceX has made its name with rockets that are partially-reusable, comprised of a first stage that can land upright to be refueled and relaunched, topped by a disposable second stage.

The Falcon 9 rocket made its maiden voyage in February, carrying Musk’s now-famous Tesla Roadster. Its strengthened version, the Falcon Heavy, can carry a larger payload than any currently operational spacecraft.

The BFR is composed of two fully-reusable stages, a booster and main body, both of which will be able to ‘soft-land’ upright. It is set to become SpaceX’s flagship rocket, and will eventually supplant their current line of spacecraft to become an all-purpose vehicle.

“Looking at the concept images and what’s been released of the design so far, the obvious improvements are number of crew it can carry… as well as the ability to carry a significant payload along with this crew,” wrote Weber.

SpaceX’s BFR can carry one hundred passengers, which greatly exceeds the three seats available on the Apollo missions. Its ability to carry a significant payload in addition to crew is also a plus.

“The BFR is also probably going to be a lot roomier than the Apollo capsule was, with all more modern controls and user interface elements which should be a better overall experience for the crew and, based on the artist renderings, give them a nicer view,” wrote Weber.

Weber also pointed out that the BFR is likely to be much less costly and complex than the Saturn V, which he claimed was “the single most complicated machine we’ve ever made with some three million individual components.”

While still a half decade away, #dearMoon and the development of the BFR invite anticipation regarding the near future of spaceflight.

According to UTAT Executive Director Ridwan Howlader, such ambitions are echoed by budding space explorers.

“SpaceX is doing some very exciting work to enable organizations and industries all over the world to make use of the space environment. Their ability to overcome challenges has allowed them to come up with Moon missions, Mars colonization missions, as well as next generation space technologies,” Howlader told The Varsity.

Howlader added, “We encourage students to find ways to conquer challenges to further their learning experiences, while still understanding the fundamentals of engineering design and effective collaboration. These are ways we redefine student innovation, and it’s great to see this type of activity in the industry as well.”

Student-funded, space-bound

The University of Toronto Aerospace Team prepares to launch a satellite into space

Student-funded, space-bound

Article by Mari Ramsawakh

The University of Toronto may make its claim to space following the U of T Aerospace Team’s (UTAT) successful levy referendum last spring. The money from the levy goes toward its Innovation Fund, which was established to create a new project for UTAT: a student-built and student-funded satellite to launch into space. Members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) from UTSG will pay the $2.77 per term levy over the next two years.UTAT is a student-run research and design group that aims to incite curiosity and spark interest in aerospace engineering. While the satellite is UTAT’s latest project, the Space Systems Division is only one of several branches of the group. The group also has a Rocketry Division currently working on a hybrid rocket that could break Canada’s high altitude record and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Division that is currently the defending champion of the Unmanned Systems Canada competition.
So, how has UTAT been using the Innovation Fund since its inception? How is the satellite coming? I met with UTAT at their office in McLennan Physical Laboratories to find out.


The team

The office, located in the basement of the building, snugly fits five of the Space Systems team members. Every workspace is covered in small plastic and metal components, which were later identified to me as 3D-printed prototypes of components of the satellite.

Although the whole Space Systems Division couldn’t meet with me, several of the Division’s team leads met to tell me more about the satellite project. Before delving into UTAT’s specific plans, I spent some time getting to know a little bit about how these undergraduates got involved with aerospace design.

Ridwan Howlader is a prime example of the sort of trajectory that UTAT can inspire; he’s the Executive Director of UTAT and the Senior Engineering Designer for the Space Systems Division. Howlader first joined UTAT during one of its outreach programs run through high schools — this means he’s been with UTAT longer than he’s been at U of T. As Executive Director, Howlader is part of the strategic and technical planning of all the projects that UTAT is involved in.

“I really appreciate the members and the energy and being curious and wanting to learn,” he told me. “It just aligns with our mission and vision.”

Katie Gwozdecky is the Director of Space Systems and a fifth-year engineering student. She’s in charge of the administrative details of the Space Systems Division, although her focus has shifted away from her initial interest in the technical aspects of the work and toward the team’s culture and keeping them aligned with their passions and needs.

“I think that no team can operate at their best if people aren’t considered to be contributors in any way,” said Gwozdecky. “We also have to make sure that people are given the space they need to do what they want to do.”

Gwozdecky has been with UTAT for five years, initially discovering the group in her first year. She explained that from the moment she saw the rockets at a clubs fair, she knew this was a group she wanted to join. Gwozdecky has been with the Space Systems Division since its creation.

Addy Bhatia, the System Design and Attitude Control Lead, has been with UTAT since fall of last year. The third-year engineering student was determined to join the team and jumped at an opportunity when he could. Now, his role involves figuring out how and where the satellite points as it separates from the rocket, as well as mechanical integrations of smaller projects into the satellite.

Victor Nechita is an aerospace engineering student who has also only been working with UTAT for the last year. Nechita is the Project Manager of the Space Systems Division, meaning that he is the one in charge of managing deadlines and scheduling as well as liaising with their launch providers.

“Your task is not just limited to a competition, we kind of extend beyond that in that we’re trying to have a real impact on the world by creating an open platform for these microbiology experiments,” said Nechita. “Being able to conduct that as a student team has been fantastic, so I hands down love being a part of the team.”

Avinash Mukkala, the Payload Lead, is a member of the team who isn’t focusing so much on the satellite, but rather the experiment for which it’ll be collecting data. Mukkala is a fourth-year molecular genetics student who joined during the first iteration of the satellite three years ago. As much as team culture has taken precedent in this group, Mukkala found that he was most proud of the scientific and technological progress UTAT has actually made on the satellite since its first iteration.

“It isn’t just a bunch of students that are just building something and putting it into space,” explained Mukkala. “There is a lot of advisors involved, there’s a lot of critical design reviews involved. The process is what I enjoy.”

They also get to learn from real experts in their fields. For example, shortly after meeting with me, several leads on the team travelled to Huntsville, Alabama to attend a NASA conference.

The mission

The first iteration of the satellite was designed for the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, in which universities across Canada were challenged to design a satellite in a two-year cycle that, once built, could survive the rigorous qualifying testing in order to win the competition. While the contest originally promised that the winning designs would be launched, there weren’t any formal offers to actually launch the satellites. UTAT decided to take the launch into their own hands.

But as Mukkala said, UTAT is more than just a couple of students sending something into space for bragging rights. There is a purpose to the satellite and its launch: a microbiology experiment.

The purpose of the satellite is to send up a payload of genetically modified cells and examine how they grow and react to an environment that is under the effect of microgravity. Mukkala was part of the team that genetically engineered the cells to send up into space. The cells they are using are a form of yeast that is found in the human gut, called candida albicans.

According to Mukkala and Bhatia, there have been several studies from NASA and other researchers that suggest that astronauts who experience long-duration space flight in microgravity can experience immunological changes because of the upregulation of the expression of certain genes in their T-cells and B-cells.

Mukkala said that space is very sterile, but our own bodies contain bacteria, and long space flights require more than one astronaut. If an astronaut is immunocompromised — meaning their immune system is impaired — they can become more susceptible to urinary tract infections or other kinds of infections. Bhatia added that this is a significant concern because, in these situations, necessary medical aid is not accessible in space.

The yeast cells will be loaded onto the UTAT satellite and examined to see how much the genes change over the course of two days in orbit. The sensors they’ll be using in the satellite have already demonstrated that they can be used in a space-like environment and can produce reproducible results. If these studies go on to prove the theories put forth by NASA and other scientists, then similar studies can continue to explore how medications may behave differently in space.

“For that reason we’re putting together a very small-scale, cheap platform that students like us can build and keep on building in the future across the world, to do studies that are as significant as this to the scientific and space community, that would benefit future space exploration,” explained Bhatia.

“Something else to note is that the results that we get from an experiment are usually applicable to more than just one situation,” added Mukkala. “Science is very spontaneous. Things happen as they go. It’s a matter of developing technology that can pace with the spontaneity of science.”

The Innovation Fund was planned to serve only on the Space Systems project and the satellite launch. According to Howlader, a large portion of the levy will be used for the launch costs, which can be “hundreds of thousands of dollars” paid through several installments over the two-year period. All other funds go directly into designing and developing the satellite.

While the first iteration that was built for the design competition withstood the structural testing that it required, the designers of the Space Systems Division found that it was difficult to manufacture and develop. That’s why the satellite has now entered its second iteration; included in this iteration is a new outer design of the satellite. Additionally, each system is being designed to be prototyped and manufactured more quickly.


The future

The true importance of a project like this is not in the immediate results of the launch but rather in the longevity of the project and the doors that it will open. The purpose of UTAT is to get students not only excited about aerospace engineering, but to make it more accessible. UTAT wants to create an environment where students can learn outside the classroom and put the theories they have learned into practice.

“The ability to show that students at the undergraduate level can get involved very deeply into something that only people like NASA have done before is very, very big,” said Howlader.

UTAT is more than just for students in STEM fields. Students involved in commerce, marketing, finance, and outreach can get involved to work on the business development aspect to the group.

“We have an entire system that can be for anyone who has any curiosity to come and learn this stuff,” Howlader told me. “I think a really big thing is how interdisciplinary the aerospace community really is.”

The Ontario Science Centre is already using old UTAT equipment for educational purposes. It’s only a matter of time before the first U of T student-launched satellite becomes the next attraction.

U of T students place first at Canadian drone competition

Team builds two-drone system to retrieve geese eggs

U of T students place first at Canadian drone competition

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Division of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT) has placed first at Unmanned Systems Canada’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Student Competition, which took place between April 28–30 in Alma, Québec.

Unmanned Systems Canada is the largest annual UAV competition in Canada that features innovative designs in drone technology. This year, the goal for contestants was to locate and conduct a survey of the nests of three different species of goose in the Canadian wilderness, and use a drone to retrieve an egg from one of the nests in order to test for any contaminants in the environment, such as pesticides. The teams had a 30- to 45- minute window to collect the egg.

The UTAT designed two drones to complete the job. The first was a fixed-wing UAV called UT-X2B, which was responsible for conducting the census. The second was a quadcopter drone called UTX-D, which featured a manually controlled robotic arm used to collect the egg. Both vehicles used GPS devices to fly autonomously to specific locations, while using visual cameras to capture pictures of their targets.

These drones differ in the way they generate force required to stay in the air. A fixed-wing UAV is similar to an airplane in that it achieves this force by using forward airspeed. A quadcopter is a multirotor helicopter and generates this force with its four propellers spinning in different directions.

Amidst the windy weather, expert piloting skills were needed to get the drones airborne and keep them from crashing.

According to Rikky Duivenvoorden, a safety pilot and technical advisor for the UTAT’s UAV Division, retrieving the egg was “particularly difficult. We’ve had to drop things before, but picking something up added a completely new dimension.” None of the teams were able to complete this task in their initial run.

On the second day of the competition, the teams were given another chance — this time, UAV was successful.

We outfitted the quadcopter with a carbon fiber robotic arm for picking up the eggs. Essentially the quadcopter flew from our base to the location with the eggs, landed within reach of an egg, picked one up using the robotic arm and then flew back home,” says Chau. “To control the robotic arm, we mounted a small camera on top of the arm, which gives [first-person video feedback] to our pilot at the base. He uses this video feed to look around for eggs and pick them up.”

The fixed-wing UT-X2B drone flew autonomously and conducted a search pattern with an onboard camera to detect and characterize geese over the survey area. The team then reported population statistics of the goose species and the geolocation of the nests.

The UTAT’s Aerial Robotics Division also competed, placing fourth in the overall competition with their vehicle, UT Skyhawk. Their drone’s design combined quadcopter and fixed-wing elements. The team also won the Judges’ Award for professionalism.

New advancements in drone technology can revolutionize how we collect data from the environment, especially in remote areas. Drones can be used to gather information from unsafe geographical landscapes inaccessible to people, to put out fires, or to help the rescue the wounded.

Duivenvoorden suggests that it will soon be commonplace to have drones in the air. “From a technological standpoint, we’re basically there. From a regulatory standpoint, we have to share the airspace with manned aircraft, so it’s very important to make sure that we ensure safety for everyone,” he adds. “As autonomous systems like ours continue to improve, that will become easier to do.”

Reaching for the Stars

U of T Aerospace Team seeks student levy

Reaching for the Stars

The University of Toronto’s Aerospace Team (UTAT) is looking to take its funding to the next level. The group will be proposing a divisional referendum concurrent with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Spring Elections. The levy, if passed, will charge students in the Faculty of Arts & Science and Professional Faculties 85¢  per session. The levy would be collected through the UTSU, an avenue that UTAT has never used before.

One of the university’s largest student design teams, UTAT is composed of students from both the Arts & Science and Engineering faculties. Over the past five years, UTAT has been pursuing increasingly high-flying and complex projects in space and aviation, hoping to add a student-led satellite project to their repertoire. The team hopes to expand all five of its divisions (Aerial Robotics, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Rocketry, Space Systems, and Outreach) over the next two years.

In pursuing a levy, the team hopes to not only realize larger projects, but also to gain support for more student-powered research and development at U of T as a whole.

Jeremy Chan-Hao Wang, executive director & senior engineering designer of UTAT, explained the need for additional funding: “Our growth will soon outpace that of traditional funding avenues from the University — e.g. grants from offices/departments — and though we make a concerted effort to secure in-kind industry donations wherever possible, — more than 90 per cent of all software and hardware we receive is donated — no one is willing to donate a satellite launch!”

The majority of money from the levy would be put toward a project to launch a satellite into space sometime in late 2018 or early 2019. The UTAT aims for this satellite to be the first satellite in Canada, completely designed and built by students.

“As part of the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, UTAT is bringing together students from engineering, physics, and life sciences to conduct microbiology experiments in support of astronaut health,” Wang said. “We aim to develop a low-cost, open platform for students around the world to carry out space medicine experiments, using standardized and miniaturized satellite design combined with our microbiology research setup.” Of course, launching a satellite into outer space is costly, and requires greater funding than the team is currently able to receive.

The rest of the money would go toward UTAT’s current projects and equipment, including “multi-purpose quadcopters, fixed-wing drones for environmental monitoring and emergency medical services, sounding rockets for atmospheric research, and the satellite development prior to launch.”

Highlighting the many awards UTAT has received from organizations such as NASA, the UN, U of T, Ryerson in addition to six annual competitions attended by the team, Wang describes the team as “one of many student groups at U of T creating a tangible impact in key technical areas and educational outreach, and redefining what it means to ‘just be a student’.”