Design Engineering

University of Alberta engineering group creates satellite to help fight wildfires

Devin Jones   

General Aerospace Canadian Space Agency

A multispectral imager built in-house and attached to the satellite will be able to monitor the entire life-cycle of a wildfire.


A design of the Ex-Alta one, which launched in May of 2017

A group of graduate and undergraduate engineers from the University of Alberta are working on a small cube shaped satellite that could help predict, track and assess the nature of wildfires throughout Canada.

Dubbed Ex-Alta 2, it’s a follow-up project to the original Ex-Alta, a  platform that allowed researchers from the group AlbertaSat to display their digital fluxgate magnetometer in a space environment and generate “awareness of space technology and impart a unique educational opportunity for all Albertans alike.”

The 2016 fires that destroyed much of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta provided inspiration for AlbertaSat’s Ex-Alta2, and a multispectral imager built in-house and attached to the satellite will be able to monitor the entire life-cycle of a wildfire without exposing anyone to potential danger.

Through the study of phenology, AlbertaSat will be able to collect data on the seasonal and cyclical nature of wildfires, giving emergency services a more accurate depiction on where fires are most likely to break out. By analyzing aerosol particles generated from smoke, the Ex-Alta 2 will generate up-to-date information about wildfires currently spreading and the post-burn of a fire will also be assessed to learn more “about the rate at which the land recovers and the effects of scarring.”


What’s unique about AlbertaSat’s Ex-Alta 2 is its function as an open source platform. According to the group, an off the-shelf cube satellite similar to what they’re building costs upwards of $200,000.  The open source cubesat that’s currently acting as a proof of concept would only cost between $10,000-$20,000 and provides much wider access to other research groups looking to construct software or components for a cubesat without having the extensive knowledge needed to work with a proprietary model.

According to AlbertaSat the open source components aboard the Ex-Alta 2 are as follows: the Icarus cubesat structure, electronic power supply board, ultra high frequency communications board, on board computer Athena version 2.0, and the multi-spectral imaging payload.

AlbertaSat was formed in 2010 in response to the the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge (CSDC) a nationwide competition that encourages university students to try their hand at spacecraft design. Beginning with a few participants the group quickly grew to over 40 students from various engineering disciplines as well as 10 instructors from U of A.

The original Ex-Alta successfully launched in May of 2017, and from that momentum the Ex-Alta 2 was one of 15 cube satellite projects that garnered funding from the Canadian Space Agency to the tune of $250,000. 


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