Alberta's first satellite is one giant leap closer to fulfilling its mission.
The tiny, student-built orbiter lifted off just after 11 a.m. ET on Tuesday – one of several stashed aboard a supply capsule bound for the International Space Station.
"It was just spectacular," said project manager Charles Nokes, who was on hand together with six other student team members from the University of Alberta to observe the launch at Cape Canaveral.
The group was able to watch the Atlas V rocket ascend into a brilliant blue Florida sky for about five minutes, Mr. Nokes said. When the rocket broke the sound barrier soon after launch, "there was a big smack," he added.
Mr. Nokes, who graduated last year, has spent much of the past 3 1/2 years working as part of a team of undergraduates that developed a small satellite, dubbed Ex-Alta 1, which is designed to measure conditions in Earth's magnetic field, where charged particles dart about at high speeds in the near vacuum of low Earth orbit.
With Tuesday's launch, the milk carton-size unit becomes the province's first homegrown spacecraft to reach orbit. The milestone also sets the stage for the deployment of the satellite from the space station as early as next month.
The launch comes after weeks of delays during which the students had to frequently change plans and rebook flights to be able to witness Ex-Alta 1's departure from Earth.
The main purpose of the launch was to send an Orbital ATK Cygnus capsule together with several tonnes of cargo to resupply the space station. But the capsule is also carrying a number of small "cube sats," 28 of which were designed and built by university students from 15 countries.
The Alberta team is Canada's only representative in the international project, known as QB50.
"Our first objective is to facilitate access to space," said Davide Masutti, who leads the European Union-supported project from its home base in Brussels.
He added that an important aspect of the QB50 project is providing students with engineering guidelines along with "the mindset that professionals are using for larger space missions."
Of the dozens of teams that took part in QB50, the Alberta group is one of 36 that have managed to have a spacecraft ready for the launch pad.
The 10-by-10-by-30 centimetre satellite is covered in solar panels to generate electricity and carries a magnetometer designed at the university as well as a set of knitting needle-like probes that will measure the density of charged particles around the spacecraft.
Once Ex-Alta 1 reaches the space station later this week, it will be stored until it can be deployed. That final step in the journey will be accomplished with the help of a Pez-dispenser-like contraption that will fling it into its own independent trajectory.
About 30 minutes later, Ex-Alta 1 is designed to power up using its internal battery and begin sending data back to Earth.
Mr. Nokes said waiting for that telltale signal will be "the most nerve-racking moment of the mission."
Duncan Elliott, a professor of engineering and a faculty adviser for the Alberta team, said Tuesday's launch marked a high point in a multiyear effort that tested students' problem-solving skills like no other project.
"There was a lot of energy from the students and a lot of energy coming out of the rocket," he said.
Prof. Elliott added that working on Ex-Alta 1 has provided a tremendous avenue for both technical and personal growth among the students who participated, as well as a rare opportunity to manage a satellite mission from start to finish.
"That's an experience they're not easily going to get anywhere else," he said.
Mr. Nokes said the celebration was tempered by the knowledge that the most important test for Ex-Alta 1 still lies ahead. But in the meantime, he and his fellow teammates were excited to be so near events at NASA's Kennedy Space Center and to claim their own small part of space history.
"Having come down here and toured all the launch pads … and being here as someone who's also been working on a spacecraft … it's really something," he said.