Last week, the first Australian satellite launched in 15 years took off from the International Space Station. The CubeSat is part of the QB50 project, an initiative that involved sending a group of 36 CubeSats to the ISS, from which they are being launched into orbit for various research purposes. The international project includes satellites from 50 research institutions in over 20 countries, with three of them coming from Australia – and two of those three being built at the University of New South Wales.
One of the UNSW satellites, called UNSW-Ec0, has a special mission. In addition to other research, the 3D printed satellite will be providing valuable insight into how well 3D printed materials perform in space. The CubeSat’s chassis is made entirely from 3D printed thermoplastic, and if it does well, it may lead to many more 3D printed CubeSats in the future, as the manufacturing method is cheaper and allows for more customization.
That’s a big if at this point, though. UNSW-Ec0 was launched from the ISS a few days ago, and as of yet engineers at UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) have been unable to pick up the signal meant to confirm that the CubeSat is operating properly.
“We’re not overly concerned yet,” said Elias Aboutanios, project leader of the UNSW-EC0 cubesat and deputy director of ACSER. “We’re troubleshooting a number of scenarios for why we didn’t detect it, from checking our ground equipment to exploring the possibility that the batteries might have discharged. But at the moment, we just don’t know.”
“If it is the batteries, the satellite has solar panels and will be able to recharge,” said Joon Wayn Cheong, a research associate at UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications and technical lead of the UNSW-Ec0 cubesat. “But because it was deployed in the Earth’s shadow, we have to wait for it to make a few orbits before it has recharged, especially if it’s tumbling. So it could be 24 to 48 hours.”
The International Space Station will make four more passes over Sydney on Friday, and the UNSW team will again try to make contact with the satellite and run a series of tests to try to determine why there’s been no signal so far.
In addition to testing the efficacy of 3D printing in space, the UNSW-Ec0 satellite will be conducting extensive research into the thermosphere, a region above the Earth about which little is known so far. The CubeSat will be studying the atomic composition of the region, as well as testing new computer chips and GPS devices created at the university.
“This zone of the atmosphere is poorly understood and really hard to measure,” said Aboutanios. “It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with Earth, influencing our weather, generating auroras and creating hazards that can affect power grids and communications. So it’s really important we learn a lot more about it. The QB50 cubesats will probably tell us more than we’ve ever known about the thermosphere.”
Project leads Dr. Barnaby Osborne and Dr. Joon Wayn Cheong with final year electrical engineering student John Lam
UNSW joined the QB50 project in 2012, and since then over 100 students, staff members and volunteers have worked on the project. At least 18 student theses have come from the UNSW project, as well as dozens of conference papers and multiple grants. The collection of CubeSats is being launched into a “string of pearls” configuration, a small constellation of satellites that will return new and valuable information about our weather and much more.
The launching of the CubeSats has been a proud moment for everyone involved in the project, but especially for Australia.
“These are the first Australian satellites to go into space in 15 years,” said Andrew Dempster, director of ACSER at UNSW, and a member of the advisory council of the Space Industry Association of Australia. “There have only been two before: Fedsat in 2002 and WRESAT in 1967. So we’ve got more hardware in space today than Australia’s had in its history.”