Australian cubesats en route to space

By on 16 August, 2016

Artist’s impression of UNSW-Ec0 in space. (Credit: Jamie Tufrey/UNSW)


The first Australian satellites to be deployed into space in 14 years have been constructed and are en route to the International Space Station (ISS). The three cubesats are being transported to the Netherlands where they will be launched to the International Space Station in December. From there they will be deployed into orbit to explore the little-understood region above Earth known as the thermosphere.

The development is perhaps the first step in Australia’s involvement in a burgeoning opportunity for cubesats, lunchbox sized satellites deployed for a multitude of applications. The trio of cubesats is part of an international mission known as QB50, which will see a swarm of 50 small satellites –weighing an average of two kilos each – carry out the most extensive measurements ever undertaken of the region between 200 and 380 km above Earth. This is a region vital for communications, weather formation and helps shield Earth from cosmic rays and solar radiation.

“This region is poorly understood and hard to measure,” said Andrew Dempster, Director of Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at UNSW. “And yet, it’s the interface between our planet and space. It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with the Earth, and generates auroras and potential hazards that can affect power grids and communications.”

The Australian cubesats are ACSER’s UNSW-Ec0, which will study the atomic composition of the thermosphere; INSPIRE-2, a joint project between the University of Sydney, UNSW and the Australian National University which will measure the electron temperature and density of plasma in the region; and SUSat, a joint project between by the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. They are the first Australian satellites to be deployed from the International Space Station.

UNSW-Ec0 cubesat in space: High-res animations of the UNSW-Ec0 being deployed from the ISS, floating above Earth near an aurora, and a video graphic of the thermosphere region.

All three satellites, along with 37 other QB50 cubesats, will be launched aloft to the International Space Station on 30 December 2016 by an Orbital ATK Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, inside a Cygnus cargo freighter. The cubesats will be deployed from the ISS between a month or so after arrival, and drift down from the ISS’s orbit of 380 km toward the target region.

“This is the most extensive exploration of the lower thermosphere ever, collecting measurements in the kind of detail never before tried,” said Elias Aboutanios, project leader of UNSW-Ec0 and a senior lecturer at UNSW. “The satellites will operate for 3-9 months – and may last up to a year – orbiting this little-studied region of space, before their orbits decay and they re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.”

The QB50 cubesats were built by 48 universities and research institutes from 28 nations, including Canada, China, France, Italy, Korea, UK and USA.

Each cubesat also carries other instruments with its own engineering and scientific goals. UNSW-Ec0, for example, has three other experiments: a robust computer chip designed to avoid crashing in the harsh radiation of space, as some satellites and space probes are forced to do when hit by cosmic rays; a space-borne GPS to allow satellites to cluster together in swarms; and test a super-reliable computer microkernel in the harsh radiation of space.

In addition, UNSW-Ec0’s chassis is made entirely from 3D-printed thermoplastic, itself an experiment to test the reliability of using  3D-printing to manufacture satellites, making them cheaper.

It’s the first time an Australian-made satellite has gone into space since FedSat, an 58kg experimental microsatellite satellite was launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre in 2002.

Greg Hunt, Australia’s Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, announced this week he had signed the Overseas Launch Certificates permitting the satellites to go into space.

“Australia’s participation demonstrates our capability in building and testing these CubeSats, providing access to space for the next generation of engineers,” he said. “Australia’s involvement in exciting projects like QB50 will inspire the next generation of young Australians to be excited about the opportunities of being engaged in science.”


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