Education and Research: Space Science
BY DONALD BÉDARD

The Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC) was established in 1876 with a mission to educate the future leaders for our great country’s armed forces. To accomplish this task, the institution must not only look to the past and present to seek lessons to use in the classroom, but must also look ahead – to ensure that the “future leaders” it trains will be ready for the challenges of tomorrow. 

In 1989, one year before the world’s first “space war” (a term often used to describe the Persian Gulf War), a new undergraduate Space Science program was stood up at RMCC in the Department of Physics with the aim of providing the necessary skillsets that future officers would need as the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) entered the space age. Space science programs were also established at the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean (CMR) as well as Royal Roads Military Collège (RRMC). From its modest beginnings, the first class of graduates in 1991 consisted of eight students, the program has now graduated over 300 students. In 2000, a decision was made to expand this program in order to provide current serving officers an opportunity to further their space education. As a result, a graduate program, offering both Masters and Doctoral degrees, was elaborated by the Department of Physics. In establishing this new program, a vibrant space research program was created at RMCC. Today, RMCC Space Science graduates occupy senior positions within the CAF, the Government of Canada, as well as the Canadian space industry sector, and are actively contributing to the overall Canadian space program – just as it was envisioned in 1989.

The newly refurbished RMCC Observatory is used for academic and research projects focused on space surveillance. The observatory is also used for outreach activities aimed at promoting an interest in astronomy.
The newly refurbished RMCC Observatory is used for academic and research projects focused on space surveillance. The observatory is also used for outreach activities aimed at promoting an interest in astronomy.

The Requirements
Space activities require a multi-disciplinary approach. For example, when planning a new spacecraft to meet the needs and requirements of the CAF, project teams must analyze what phenomenology they will need to exploit to obtain the information they require. In conjunction with this, they must then decide what technologies will be used, and how to measure results. Technological solutions must be elaborated and then evaluated in the context of the harsh space environment and the restrictive physical laws of orbital mechanics. If this doesn’t seem daunting enough, project teams proposing space mission concepts must abide by national and international space laws and regulations, and are typically conducted according to strict guidelines to ensure mission success. In short, space activities require personnel trained in the fields of science, engineering, requirements management, space law and policy, as well as project management. Future officers will be expected to manage teams that can address these various subjects, whether they are in a procurement project office for a new spacecraft, or working at the Canadian Space Operation Centre – and this is where the RMCC Space Science program enters the picture.

Undergraduate Program
Over the years, the Space Science program has evolved to offer students the necessary knowledge to tackle whatever challenge is served up by the CAF. At the core of the program are the basic physics courses that provide the fundamental knowledge upon which space-specific material can be built. These courses are offered throughout the four-year program. During their second year, students continue with core physics courses and get their first introduction to the space sciences. They are also given the history of the space age which provides them with the context of how today’s ubiquitous space systems, such as satellite communications and GPS, came to be. In their third and fourth years, students take specialized courses in various subject areas such as orbital mechanics, space weather, remote sensing, as well as space mission analysis and design.

Students and faculty remotely operate the three RMCC observatory telescopes for academic and research projects.
Students and faculty remotely operate the three RMCC observatory telescopes for academic and research projects. (Photo: Courtesy of RMCC)

Part of the final requirement is a year-long project in which students are expected to dig deep in the tool box of knowledge they have acquired in order to formulate a space mission concept. Because it is virtually impossible to create a space mission, students apply all they have learned by designing a high altitude balloon mission using the space mission analysis and design processes. Essentially starting from a blank sheet of paper, students apply the space mission analysis and design principles to conceptualize a high-altitude balloon flight, design the instrument and vehicle to collect the data as it survives the near-space environment. During this process, the students use their laboratory skills to test the vehicle before flight. Between 2009 and 2013, students launched a total of four high altitude balloon missions in which they conducted cosmic ray measurements in the atmosphere and tested instruments that detected Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) signals that are broadcast from most commercial airliners. ADS-B is an air traffic surveillance system in which aircraft broadcast, among other information, GPS position and velocity.

By the end of their four-year journey, Space Science graduates are armed with a solid and comprehensive knowledge base that enables them to jump into a wide variety of jobs and challenges that will be offered by the CAF.

Graduate Program and Space Science Research
The graduate space science program is different from the undergraduate program in that it allows students to focus on one particular field related to space science. During this program, students acquire an in-depth understanding of various topics through the course work, but are also expected to delve into a particular topic through the development of a project or a thesis. Those students opting to complete a thesis are expected to expand the current state of knowledge in their chosen field through their thesis research, which ultimately supports the overall CAF and Canadian space objectives, by studying fundamental problems. The most common areas of studies are space weather, space situational awareness, and remote sensing.

Major Richard Van Der Pryt, the designer and builder of the RMCC ADS-B space experiment, presents his work to Brigadier-General Blaise Frawley, Director General Space.
Major Richard Van Der Pryt, the designer and builder of the RMCC ADS-B space experiment, presents his work to Brigadier-General Blaise Frawley, Director General Space. (Photo: Gregg Wade)

Space weather is now recognized as an important factor to be considered in military operations, especially those occurring in the Arctic environment. Unfavorable conditions on the Sun and in the near-Earth space environment can degrade and disrupt the performance of satellites in Earth-orbit as well as military electronic and communication systems. With this in mind, the ability to reliably monitor and predict such events, as well as the capability of understanding where and how they will impact military operations, is of critical importance. While there are systems currently in place that provide some information, space weather awareness research is a rich growth area. Professors and graduate students at RMCC are actively involved in advancing the understanding of the atmospheric physical phenomena affected by space weather and how they impact operations on Earth as well as in Earth-orbit. 

The second area of graduate study is in the general area of space surveillance. This is a growing mission area for the CAF and has resulted in a steady stream of graduate students that have completed Masters and Doctoral degrees focused on studying how we can improve the tools and techniques that are in use currently to conduct space surveillance. 

Using small telescopes equipped with scientific grade CCD cameras, and the large telescopes at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, B.C., and at the Observatoire du Mont Mégantic in Québec, professors and graduate students use the reflected sunlight from active satellites and space debris objects in order to learn about their surface material composition as well as their orientation. 

2014 – Fourth-year Space Science students prepare their high-altitude balloon for launch. This successful mission measured cosmic rays in the atmosphere and reached an altitude of 30.9 km.
2014 – Fourth-year Space Science students prepare their high-altitude balloon for launch. This successful mission measured cosmic rays in the atmosphere and reached an altitude of 30.9 km. (Photo: Courtesy of RMCC)

The program is also credited as being involved in the early development of the CASTOR system which was one of the initial building blocks that eventually led to the Sapphire spacecraft that was launched in 2013. 

It is worthwhile to note here that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has sent one of its officers to RMCC every two years since 2007 to pursue graduate studies in space surveillance. 

In remote sensing, RMCC has been actively involved in the detection of ADS-B signals. This effort, which initially began as a senior undergraduate project combined with the course project for graduate student enrolled in the space science program,  has now evolved into an experimental receiver that was built at RMCC and launched in September 2016 on the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Canadian Advanced Nano­space eXperiment-7 (CanX-7) nanosatellite. 

RMCC’s first experiment in space will allow faculty and graduate student to conduct in-depth studies of ADS-B signals collected over the North Atlantic which will be compared to signals collected from ground-based air traffic services.

Students install the antenna for the RMCC Satellite Ground Station. This ground ­station is used to communicate with satellites in low Earth orbit using amateur radio bands.
Students install the antenna for the RMCC Satellite Ground Station. This ground ­station is used to communicate with satellites in low Earth orbit using amateur radio bands. (Photo: Alex Cushley)

The Future
It is hard to predict what the next 25 years hold for the Space Science program at RMCC. But if the past is truly an indication of what the future holds, then the future of space education in the CAF is in good hands. Recently, the RMCC Observatory was upgraded to include three robotic small aperture telescopes that can be operated remotely and which will increase the research opportunities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to conduct space surveillance research. This new capability will ensure RMCC and, most importantly, its students remain at the forefront of space surveillance research. In the area of space mission analysis and design, RMCC has also recently modernized its satellite ground station to enable students to get hands-on experience at receiving satellite data. With the successful launch of its first instrument in low-Earth orbit (the CanX-7 satellite was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in India on 26 September 2016), faculty members are already planning the next step – a complete satellite mission built entirely at RMCC. Such activities will continue to provide rich opportunities for Space Science students at RMCC that will prepare them well for their career in the Canadian Armed Forces. 

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Major Donald Bédard, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at RMCC.

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