Three Australian research satellites – two of them built at the University of New South Wales – will be launched to the International Space Station this year and deployed into orbit to explore the little-understood region above Earth known as the thermosphere.
The trio is part of an international project known as QB50, which will see a total of 50 small satellites – known as cubesats and weighing just a kilo each – carry out the most extensive measurements ever undertaken of the region between 200 and 380 km above Earth.
“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 three satellites 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.
All three satellites, along with 40 other QB50 cubesats, will be launched to the International Space Station in December 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.”
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.
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, a 58kg experimental microsatellite, was launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre in 2002. The Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, announced today that he had signed the Overseas Launch Certificates permitting the satellites to go into space.