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UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA UNDERGRAD’S PROJECT IS OUT OF THIS WORLD
By Suzanne Forcese
At the age of 23, she has already been part of a team that helped put Alberta into space with the launch of Ex-Alta1, her team’s satellite, at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral; been in daily communication with her “space baby” for a year and a half downloading data while the satellite orbited earth; and co-founded Wyvern Space, a company that focuses on observing our planet’s ecosystems.
ExAlta-1 in orbit
Canada’s ascending star is Callie Lissinna and WaterToday had the pleasure of engaging in an uplifting conversation with University of Alberta’s Mechanical Engineering undergrad who as well as her experience in nanosatellite design, project management, 3D printing technologies, and super-capacitators has won numerous awards for academic excellence and been named one of the “35 Faces of Wisest” by Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology (STEM) for being an influential woman in the University of Alberta STEM community.
“My fascination with space has always been there. My earliest memory is reading picture books about spaceships when all the other kids were reading about dinosaurs. I just never outgrew the passion.”
With the poise and grace of the ballet and lyrical dance teacher that she is, Lissinna is quick to add, “But it’s not just about me. I work with an amazing team that is a daily inspiration to me,” referring to the earlier ExAlta-1 project and the ExAlta-2 Satellite for which she is Project Manager.
The team, AlbertaSat is a group of student volunteers and professors who designed and built the first made-in-Alberta satellite and laid the groundwork for Alberta as a centre for aerospace technology advancement.
Ex-Alta 1, or the Experimental Albertan #1 Satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral in April 2017 as part of a NASA resupply mission to the International Space Station.
It was the most emotional and surreal experience of Lissinna’s life. “The rocket carried it from Cape Canaveral up to the space station and then astronauts had to shoot it out of the space station into orbit. And we were in a web conference with them. The astronauts were sending us photos and live streams. Just the fact that we were a part of that was really amazing.”
Students operated Ex-Alta 1 daily using a ground station at the University. “We have a large antenna on the roof of the Engineering building, and we had to send commands five times per day when the satellite would be directly overhead. That meant someone had to stay up all night to be there for our satellite baby.”
The satellite monitored space weather as part of the International QB50 Mission (the launching of 50 CubeSats worldwide) and helped the U of A researchers understand how to protect electrical power and communications infrastructure from the threat of solar storms.
Lissinna spent a year and a half communicating with the team’s baby by typing “ping” on her computer. When the satellite answered back with “ping” that meant all was well.
The mission was officially put to end when the satellite turned into a fireball as programmed after the year and a half project was completed.
Lissinna admits it was a bittersweet moment the day she did not get a “ping” response back. “It was so much a part of my daily routine. But it also meant that now there was more time to devote to Ex-Alta 2 which will be launched in 2021.
Ex-Alta 2 will predict and monitor the effects of wildfires using a camera-like instrument called a multispectral imager. “When we were deciding on a purpose for this satellite we thought of our friends and families who have been devastated by the Fort McMurray (2016) and Slave Lake (2011) wildfire disasters,” Lissinna said with the same compassion that U of A’s Dr. Ania Ulrich’s ,u>Engineering With Decency program has demonstrated . “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”
The mission of Ex-Alta 2 will provide data analysis to interested clients such as the Alberta Government. Departments of Agriculture and Forestry could use the data to allocate firefighting resources.
Like the Ex-Alta 1, the loaf- of- bread –sized (10 x 10 x 30 cm) Ex-Alta 2 has components that were designed and built in-house with an open-source philosophy, meaning that student satellite teams around the world have access to designs being developed at the U of A.
“We are also in collaboration with teams in Aurora College, Inuvik, Northwest Territories and Yukon College in Whitehorse to share equipment and expertise.”
The AlbertaSat Team, which has received $250,000 from the Canadian Space Agency toward the project, covers a range of disciplines across campus ranging from Engineering and Mechanical Engineering students to those in Education, Business and the Faculties of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences. “We also have an Outreach Program that includes interactive classroom sessions for K-12 where we go into classrooms encouraging the next generation of engineers to reach for the stars.”
Lissinna’s outreach work as a mentor to young women in the Female Engineering Mentorship (FEM) program has also helped to advance the number of women entering the Engineering Faculty.
“Our group engaged in some deep reflection about how we were consciously and unconsciously delegating gender biased roles. Once we became cognizant of that bias, we were able to achieve a 50%/50% split in role assignment.”
As an entrepreneur, Lissinna’s mission for the start-up company Wyvern that she has co-founded with Chris Robson, Kurtis Broda and Kristen Cote, is to build satellites that use unique Earth observation imagery to detect changes on the ground.
“One way you can use cutting edge technology to make the world a better place is to help us understand change that’s happening to ecosystems around the world using satellite data.” Using a hyperspectral imager and launching a constellation of satellites the goal is to deliver exact data that farmers need for actionable insights about their crops.
It almost seems that Callie Lissinna has had a hyperspectral vision of her own trajectory since reading through picture books of spaceships as a young child. but she can still identify with students who are unsure of their path. “Don’t give up just because you think you are not suited to a project. Get involved. Everyone has a special skill that can be part of a larger project.”
And with that advice – it’s #LiftoffAlberta.
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