CanSats, Drones, and Spectacular Views

Lisa Baddeley is a professor in Space physics – radar applications at UNIS, and for many years, she led the field work AGF-223 at Breinosa. Now, she wants to say hello to her colleagues taking over the lecturing, and I and Walter, the dog, are lucky to tag along.

The air is crisp and cold as we drive towards Breinosa on this particular day. As we depart from Longyearbyen, we leave the cloud cover to the west and hope to complete our visit before it catches up to us. Walter, the white shepherd, dozes off in the backseat while the humans chit-chat about this and that. In stark contrast to the outside temperatures, the car is boiling.

The Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO)

As October begins, space physics staff at the UNIS Department of Arctic Geophysics enter their peak season. That’s why Noora Partamies, Mikko Syrjäsuo and the students are at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO), where I, Lisa Baddeley and her four-legged companion are headed.

Each autumn semester, the students from AGF 210 bear to Ny-Ålesund and AGF 223 to Breinosa to conduct fieldwork. Students participate in both courses and thus have already been to the research station further north.

For the whole week, the students will learn about the instrumentation and techniques used in studies of the near-Earth environment. The primary fieldwork involves designing, programming, and building a small instrument package (“CanSat”) for altitude profile data collection, with a drone to carry the payloads up.

FACTS: KHO is an essential optical observatory specializing in monitoring the middle and upper atmosphere, with a particular focus on the cusp (dayside) auroral research. Its location and international collaborations make it a significant hub for advancing our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere and its interactions with solar-induced phenomena like auroras.

Student involved fieldwork

“We have to wait here,” Lisa says as we enter the driveway to the Observatory on top of the Mine 7 mountain. “Are they aiming at the car,” she asks sarcastically and smiles as we observe a drone flying over us. The students conduct fieldwork with Martin Stensnes, a drone pilot from Andøya Space Education. They have built CanSats, satellites with electronic sensors and a radio transmitter fitted inside a soda can and attached to tiny parachutes. While waiting, we suddenly see the drone dropping a CanSat over us. The CanSat does not hit our car but lands safely on the snow-covered tundra while the drone returns to KHO.

All clear, and now we can enter the premises. Walter gets his longed-for walk as the students get ready for lunch.
Well inside, the chattering goes as we enjoy the view towards the EISCAT radar and Longyearbyen. The sky is still pink from the low rays scattering, but the cloud cap looks ominous as it closes in on us.

The SocSatBot launching

Bachelor student Linnea Mustonen illustrates how it’s made. Together with Nele Eggers and Phoebe Lee, they have made their CanSat “SockSatBot”, a name derived from a bottle-covered satellite, sock-encased.

The CanSat is released from an altitude of 120 meters and then descends to the ground. During its journey, the device collects temperature, humidity, pressure data, and GPS position. Students can monitor the data in real-time to ensure they receive the required information. The main goal is to learn problem-solving, mainly on sensor calibration, space mission design and science requirements.
“The difference between a CanSat and an actual satellite mission is minor,” engineer Mikko Syrjäsuo explains.

A favourite field experience

The students are excited, and being on top of Breinosa, looking down at the much more extensive facilities of EISCAT, is easily one of the best experiences they have had. One of the best because all the students have another favourite – the Ny-Ålesund one. Everyone in the room seemed to have robbed the Ny-Ålesund Shop for different items: T-shirts, buffs, fleece shirts and beanies.
The significance of this fieldwork lies not only in the data collected but also in the camaraderie and experiences shared. From Ny-Ålesund to KHO, these students have created memories and skills that will last a lifetime.

Arctic Geophysics Courses Research