by Lawrence Reeves
With a sudden, loud “whoosh,” a small rocket darts up into the sky, leaving a thin column of smoke behind it. The rocket quickly burns out yet continues to coast ever higher. When it reaches its apex (approximately one kilometre), a small, blackpowder charge disengages the rocket’s nose cone and ejects its cargo: a CanSat—a pop-can-sized satellite containing equipment for one or more science experiments. A parachute soon opens, and the CanSat’s mission begins as it collects data while on its descent back to Earth.
The Canadian Satellite Design Challenge Management Society (CSDCMS) has been managing a university-level “CubeSat” satellite competition for over 10 years, and has recently expanded to offer the CanSat Design Challenge to high school students. The competition is a Canada-wide STEM development program in which teams of high-school students design, build, and launch their own CanSat, a simplified version of a satellite. The CanSat contains a small computer, a battery, and one or more sensors, along with other technology to conduct experiments during descent. The primary mission is to collect and record air temperature and pressure data every second.
From a small, mid-pandemic start with only six teams in the 2020-21 school year, the CanSat Design Challenge has grown to include more than 40 teams this year, hailing from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. Teams comprise up to six students, and combine the knowledge of several STEM-related disciplines (electronics, physics, software), as well as communications skills (writing and presenting). The CanSat competition contains an Educational Outreach component, and teams are required to give space-related presentations to younger students in order to pique their interest and inspire them to pursue STEM education further.
The CanSat Design Challenge has two levels to accommodate as many interested students as possible. In the Beginner level, the CanSat records the data on a memory card on-board; at the Advanced level, the CanSat transmits the data by radio to the students tracking it on the ground. Teams in the Advanced category will travel to Lethbridge, Alberta, at the end of April to have their CanSats launched, while the Beginner category CanSats will be deployed out of a helicopter from wherever they are located. The winner of the Advanced level then has the honour of representing Canada in Europe at an international CanSat competition organised by the European Space Agency.
Taking part in a CanSat project gives student teams the opportunity to experience the phases of a real space project, from selecting the mission objectives, designing the CanSat and parachute, integrating the components, testing the system, preparing for launch, and analysing the data obtained. Through this process, students learn through hands-on experience while working on a fun and interesting challenge. The CSDCMS provides every team a CanSat kit with most of the required components, and has created a number of online video tutorials to guide the students through the development process.
The CSDCMS would like to welcome any interested schools—no matter how large, small, or remote—to contact us to participate in future competitions. Please feel free to contact the CanSat Design Challenge organiser, Lawrence Reeves, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.