CanSats: Satellites-in-a-can lets students do space research

Space agencies and space companies often complain that too many young engineers graduate without any practical experience. CanSats let universities give students experience with all stages of a space-related mission: proposal, design, engineering, launch, data acquisition, analysis, and report. These satellites-in-a-can may not actually reach Outer Space, but they give college students - and high school students - experience they need to work on real space missions.

Bob Twiggs, one of the CubeSat’s inventors, proposed the CanSat concept in 1998 to address the gap space education. A typical academic research satellite takes years - or decades - to develop. Students who get to work on the project only experience a limited part of the project’s lifecycle before they graduate. Twiggs’ original plan called for students to design a small satellite the size of a soda can that could be launched into orbit. Giving students experience of a full project lifecycle would prepare them for careers in the space industry.  CubeSats eventually became the standard for small academic research satellites, but CanSats continued in a different form. By focusing on suborbital launches on amateur rockets, universities can compress the project lifecycle within a single school year. 

The Arliss Project evolved from the original CanSat effort. It lets students from universities around the world take fly CanSats on high-performance rockets. AeroPac is the northern California prefecture of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, the global society of amateur high-performance rocket enthusiasts. For the past fifteen years these rocket enthusiasts have helped young scientists and engineers fly their CanSat missions. High-performance amateur rockets launch the students’ CanSats three kilometers above Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Students design their CanSats to conduct microgravity, atmospheric, remote sensing, or other research. The program evolved over the years to include coffee-can sized projects as well as ComeBack projects that release robotic fliers and rovers.

The largest competition for undergraduate and graduate students is the annual CanSat Competition. Organized by the American Astronautical Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the competition sets specific performance targets that the teams must achieve. The 2014 contest requires students to design a CanSat that simulates an atmospheric probe. A rocket releases the CanSat to a 670-meter altitude after which the CanSat’s instruments must record data during the descent. The students must design their CanSat carefully because it must also carry an egg unbroken from launch to landing. The competition is open to undergraduate and graduate student teams from around the world. Participants in 2014 come from American universities as well as universities in Canada, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates.

The University Space Engineering Consortium is a non-profit organization that supports space projects at Japanese universities and colleges. Unisec’s main mission is to give undergraduate and graduate students practical, hands-on experience to supplement the theoretical education in the classroom. CanSat projects feature prominently in their programs. Unisec also advances CanSat educational programs worldwide. Professors from universities outside Japan attend the four-week CanSat Leader Training Program to design CanSat development programs and translate resources into their native language. During the workshop the professors design and build their own CanSats which the program flies on high-altitude balloons and high-performance rockets. Unisec took its global outreach further in 2013 when it hosted the first meeting of Unisec-Global. Their ultimate goal: establish Unisec chapters in one hundred countries, each one creating opportunities for college students to get hands-on experience with practical space projects.

Several European countries began organizing high school CanSat competitions in the early 2000’s to boost interest in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. National CanSat groups now organize competitions in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In 2010 the European Space Agency and Norom (English site), the Norwegian Centre for Space Education, conducted the first European CanSat Competition at Norway’s Andøya Rocket Range. Located above the Arctic Circle, Andøya hosts suborbital rocket launches and polar high-altitude balloon missions for Esa, Nasa, and other space agencies. Sixteen student teams drawn from schools in Esa-member nations travel to this professional rocket range to watch their CanSats launch into the sky. The 2013 Champion was a team of young women from Portugal’s Azores Islands, Team Air Sat One. They designed their CanSat so that, after being ejected from the rocket, wings deployed to let it return gently to Earth as it collected data on altitude, pressure, and temperature.