Irish CanSat for detecting Earth-like planets named European winner

3 Jul 2018

The inner workings of a CanSat under final preparations for launch. Image: Dário Cruz

A team of very bright Irish secondary school students has won the top prize at the ESA CanSat international competition with a very clever, tiny satellite.

Sending objects into space has never been easier, with SpaceX aiming to have weekly cargo launches on its reusable Falcon 9 rocket quite soon. However, spacefaring technologies are not just limited to multibillion-dollar companies.

Last week, the European Space Agency (ESA) held its continental CanSat competition to see which national team of secondary school students could design, build and test a prototype satellite within the confines of a fizzy drink can.

Created to foster an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers, the competition offers students a hands-on experience of a space-themed project and exposure to space industry standards across multiple career paths.

Now, the Irish team from Marist College in Athlone, Co Westmeath, can celebrate the fact it has won over its European peers as the overall winner of the CanSat finals held in Santa Maria, one of the Azores islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

The team includes Pádraig McDermott, Paul McGrath, Sebastian Klosowski and Usman Riaz.

Called Taistealaí – the Irish word for traveller – the CanSat developed by the students can use a broad range of onboard sensors to determine if a planet can support life.

Irish CanSat team

The Taistealaí team after winning the ESA CanSat European finals in the Azores. From left: Paul McGrath, Pádraig McDermott, Usman Riaz and Sebastian Klosowski. Image: Paul Mulvey

‘The lads are absolutely delighted’

Earlier this year, the Marist College team was selected as the country’s European representative following the national finals, held as part of a collaboration between ESERO Ireland, ESA and Science Foundation Ireland, with coordination and management by CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory.

There were 18 participants in the European finals this year: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, a Nordic team (joint competition Finland-Sweden-Norway), Portugal, Poland, Romania, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.

A special competitor was also invited to take part: Hosei Daini Physics Club, winner from the Japanese National CanSat competition.

Speaking of her students’ success, Marist College teacher Georgina Clear said: “The lads are absolutely delighted. Everyone here at Marist College is incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved. Even in the height of the competition, the spirit of cooperation and comradery between the teams was inspiring.”

Adding to this, the national coordinator of CanSat Ireland, Alan Giltinan, said: “It is a testimony to all their hard work and dedication, and a fantastic achievement for the students, staff, mentors and everyone involved.

“By winning the European final, the students have highlighted that Ireland has an up-and-coming student base well equipped for STEM and space careers, such as the emerging new space sector, while showcasing Ireland’s emerging workforce as a powerful competitor.”

While this is the first time that an Irish team has finished in first place, previous teams have reached third place in 2016 and second place in 2017.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic