Scientific instruments developed at Lassonde fly high above the clouds during Strato-Science 2023 campaign
Not quite as distant as outer space, but much higher than airplane-cruising altitude, the stratosphere is a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere situated in the perfect area to deploy space instruments and technologies, test their function and collect useful information.
In late summer 2023, teams of student researchers supervised by Professors Regina Lee and Jinjun Shan in the Earth & Space Science & Engineering department at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, launched payloads of new space technologies up to the stratosphere as part of the Strato-Science 2023 campaign. This campaign provides post-secondary students with opportunities to design, build and test small payloads aboard high-altitude balloons systems, which soar into the sky and across the stratosphere to test new technologies, conduct science experiments and perform various measurements.
The two payloads, Resident Space Object Near-space Astrometric Research (RSOnar) v2 and Miniature Imaging Fabry-Perot Spectrometer (MIFPS), lifted off from the Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base in northeastern Ontario during two different early-morning flights, and returned a collection of data and information to undergo analysis.
Learn about the details of each payload and launch below.
Resident Space Object Near-space Astrometric Research (RSOnar) v2 – Professor Regina Lee’s Nanosatellite Research Lab
Professor Regina Lee and her students involved in the RSOnar v2 project
Space is occupied by various satellites, rockets and debris known as resident space objects (RSOs); some of which are inactive or broken and can overcrowd space environments or interfere with space missions and assets. By tracking and monitoring RSOs through the practice of Space Situational Awareness (SSA), scientists can use collected data to inform RSO removal and help establish sustainable space environments.
Joining space surveillance efforts, RSOnar v2, a CubeSat developed by a large team of undergraduate and graduate students in Professor Lee’s lab, was launched up to the stratosphere to test its SSA abilities. Equipped with four independent imaging systems, RSOnar v2 was propelled to a cruising altitude of 37km where it surveyed the stars and captured images of satellites and space debris as they passed by, using a dual-purpose star tracker concept.
“We collected a lot of data during this space mission and are now working on processing the images we obtained from the flight,” says Randa Qashoa, RSOnar v2 project manager and PhD candidate in Earth & Space Science. “The images will be used by many members of the research team to test and verify our algorithms, including RSO detection and attitude determination. We also received a lot of valuable information on the impact of changing camera parameters to enhance the quality of resulting RSO images. This was a large leap forward in proving the dual-purpose star tracker concept for future space missions.”
RSOnar v2 integrated on gondola before launch.
RSOnar v2 is also part of a unique initiative which inspired the etching of various messages on architectural components of the scientific instrument.
In addition, this mission served as an important experiential learning opportunity for all students involved, promoting teamwork, critical thinking and skill building.
“As project manager, I learned many skills throughout this mission; from planning to operations,” says Qashoa. “My coding skills were improved through testing and debugging various components and I also developed my soft skills like team building and communication. The experience I gained from this mission was invaluable to my personal growth. The mission would not have been possible without every single member of the RSOnar team. We had ten months to design and assemble the payload, and the mission was a success thanks to everyone’s hard work. Most importantly, we would not have been able to get this far without the guidance of our supervisor.”
Miniature Imaging Fabry-Perot Spectrometer (MIFPS) – Professor Jinjun Shan’s Spacecraft Dynamics Control and Navigation (SDCN) Lab
Professor Jinjun Shan and his students involved in the MIFPS project.
Supervised by Professor Shan, a team of student researchers ranging from the undergraduate to post-doctorate level developed the scientific instrument ‘Miniature Imaging Fabry-Perot Spectrometer’ (MIFPS), to take accurate, high-resolution measurements of the molecular oxygen atmospheric-band. These measurements provide useful information on various parameters which can help improve understanding of cloud and aerosol properties and inform solutions for climate and air quality concerns.
The student research team included Ingredy Gabriela Gomes Carmo, MSc candidate in space engineering, Hassan Alkomy, postdoctoral fellow, Tyler Chung, undergraduate student, and Mingfeng Yuan, PhD candidate in earth & space science. Support was also received from Dr. Shou Zhang, former postdoctoral fellow and Dr. Marc Savoie, former PhD student, who have previous experience with the Fabry-Perot Spectrometer.
In preparation for its voyage above the clouds, MIFPS underwent extensive calibration and control tests to ensure the instrument demonstrated greater function than its predecessor, which was tested during a stratospheric balloon launch in 2017. Specifically, the team aimed to improve the finesse of MIFPS, a parameter used to define the accuracy of measurements.
High-altitude balloons preparing for launch at Timmins Stratospheric Balloon Base.
“Our payload was launched successfully into the stratosphere, and we were able to acquire some data,” says Ingredy Gabriela Gomes Carmo. “We also managed to establish successful wireless communication with our payload during the launch. This was a great opportunity for me to work on a high-profile project with an amazing team. Before joining this project, I had no knowledge of Fabry-Perot Spectrometers, piezoelectric actuators and the system optics involved, but I now have a better understanding of how these systems work. I also gained an understanding of how space missions are designed and had the opportunity to work closely with personnel from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES).”
In addition to data acquisition, the research team successfully reached their goal of increasing MIFPS’ finesse to meet the measurement requirements. The next steps for the SDCNLab are to fix the hardware issues encountered during the flight and re-fly the instrument. The team also hopes to implement new controllers to improve the instrument performance for future missions.
Experiential learning opportunities like the Strato-Science 2023 campaign, help enhance student growth and propel their educational journeys. In addition to projects like this, Lassonde students have travelled to Arctic regions for Mars-exploration research, developed autonomous robots for international competitions, and even contributed to high-profile space missions. Explore more stories from our Earth & Space Science & Engineering department.