June 10, 2023
Biarki Weeks stands in front of the University of Victoria communication tower that will receive signals from ORCASat, due to be launched later this month. Photo: Submitted

West Kootenay-raised engineering student sets sights on stars – Kimberley Daily Bulletin

As a young man growing up in Kaslo, Biarki Weeks used to look up at the dark Kootenay night sky and wonder about the stars.

Now, the third-year electrical engineering student at the University of Victoria is looking forward to a career with one foot in space.

“I definitely see this as a career path for myself,” he says. “As someone who’s always wanted to get into this industry, as someone who grew up in Castle, it’s very exciting to be on the path to it.”

Weeks, 27, will be watching closely in November when a SpaceX rocket blasts off to meet the International Space Station. The Dragon capsule will house a small milk carton-sized satellite built by the University of Victoria, called a cubesat.

“It’s going to be surreal and awesome,” Weeks told the Valley Voice. “While I didn’t have much of a hand in building this satellite, I was involved in a project that goes into space, and as a space nerd, I couldn’t be more excited.”

The satellite – known as ORCASat (for optical reference calibration satellite) – will orbit the planet for up to two years, and the UVic team hopes it will help astronomers unlock some of the universe’s deepest mysteries. It will do this by providing a reliable benchmark for scientists measuring the brightness of stars.

“Ground-based telescopes measure how bright astronomical objects appear to be, not how bright they actually are,” explains the ORCASat website. “When observing astronomical objects, the light being measured passes through the atmosphere and telescope optics.”

How the atmosphere affects light also affects the apparent brightness of distant stars. Since astronomers use this brightness to estimate the distance of objects in the universe, it is important for them to be able to quantify how the atmosphere affects their readings.

ORCASat is essentially an orbiting beacon of known brightness. Observatories can focus the tiny satellite’s laser light and get a better sense of how atmospheric dust, chemicals and water vapor affect what they see. This gives them a way to be more accurate in their measurements.

Two major observatories have already signed on to calibrate their instruments with ORCASat, with more expected to follow.

Student activities

Weeks first got involved with ORCASat before the pandemic, through a campus engineering club. It was early in the design and construction of the satellite and Weeks did some preliminary work on electrical subsystems.

“I started working on some introductory projects, proved that I could do things and that I was reliable, then I was given a few more projects,” he recalls.

Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented him from continuing with ORCASat and he was not involved in its final construction. But since returning to the project, he has helped prepare the infrastructure to support the cubesat after launch. He became the undergraduate technician in charge last spring, but with ORCASat nearly ready for launch, he has focused on building the ground station that will communicate directly with the cubesat.

ORCASat gave Weeks a taste of the kind of career he could have in aerospace electrical engineering, and he’s hooked. He has been heavily involved in UVic’s next cubesat project.

“We are working on an earth imaging satellite for the Canadian Cubesat Design Challenge,” he says. “We also hope to win a grant to build another satellite to send into space in the not-too-distant future.”

It is Weeks’ biggest project to date.

“I direct the project, for all intents and purposes,” he says. “As a technical guide, I basically define the parameters that each subsystem must follow. I make sure we can send data, say, or that our power systems are generating enough power and that our altitude control system has enough pointing accuracy and stability to handle the payload and maintain the satellite’s orientation… it goes on.

“I make sure everyone is talking to everyone, so I’m the focal point of all these groups.”

Weeks says the experience has been amazing and he looks forward to seeing how ORCASat performs in orbit. And he wants the students at his high school, JV Humphries in Kaslo, to know that they can accomplish anything from where they are now.

“Just because you grew up in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean you can’t do these kinds of awesome things,” he says. “The things I do on a daily basis now I could only dream about in high school. Just work hard and pursue opportunities that interest you. You never know where they might lead.”

You can learn more about the ORCASat project by visiting its website, https://www.orcasat.ca.

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