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Nano-satellites enable space exploration on a budget

Shoebox-sized craft can be launched for well under $1 million

This artist's rendering shows a CubeSat satellite orbiting the earth with its solar panel arrays extended. (Photo courtesy of UNSW)

SYDNEY A swarm of shoebox-sized satellites is scheduled to begin the first stage of a historic journey into space on April 18, when an Atlas V rocket blasts off from Florida's Cape Canaveral space center with the tiny satellites on board, along with NASA equipment and supplies. All are destined for the International Space Station.

Marking Australia's re-entry into the space race after 15 years, Australian universities are sending three of these nano-satellites into space, each weighing about 2kg and costing about $1 million Australian dollars ($750,919) each, including transport to the space station. The tiny spacecraft will undertake research gauging atmospheric density for up to a year, before burning up on re-entry.

"It's amazing you can put a piece of hardware in space for a million dollars," said Elias Aboutanios, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research and leader of a nano-sat project at the University of New South Wales. "In direct costs that we can account for, it has cost us about a quarter of a million [Australian] dollars in cash, and about three-quarters of a million dollars in kind. ... That includes everything."

From left: Joon Wayn Cheong, Cheryl Brown, John Lam, Ben Southwell, Andrew Dempster and Tom Croston, of the University of New South Wales (Photo courtesy of UNSW)

As the first Australian spacecraft to make it into space since a scientific research satellite launched from Japan in 2002, these tiny satellites have already ignited a new burst of astronautical interest in Australia, where they are seen as the harbingers of a revolutionary and affordable thrust into orbit.

The launches are part of a cooperative effort by universities and research institutes in 23 nations involved in the European Union-led QB50 project, which planned to use 50 very small satellites to carry out coordinated atmospheric measurements in a string-of-pearls constellation. After they are released from the space station they will disperse and orbit Earth at roughly 7.5km a second, gathering valuable scientific data as they roam.

Originally planned for March, the Atlas V rocket launch was delayed by technical problems with the ground support equipment. When they reach space, the first group of 28 QB50 nano-satellites -- known as CubeSats because they are made up of multiples of 10-by-10-by-11.35cm cuboid units -- will take soundings in the largely unmeasured lower thermosphere, between 200km and 380km above Earth. A second group of eight QB50 CubeSats is scheduled to be launched into space at a future date aboard the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, from Satish Dhawan Space Centre, bringing the total to 36 -- the number of nano-sats ready for launch by the EU's deadline.

Asian nations involved in the QB50 project include South Korea, Taiwan and, to a certain extent, China, although the two Chinese universities building QB50 CubeSats -- Harbin Institute of Technology and Nanjing University of Science and Technology -- have registered their spacecraft in Belgium.

SECOND CHANCE Space has long been dominated by superpowers with super budgets, enabling the push to the moon by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, and the American and European Mars probes currently underway. More recently, billionaire space enthusiasts such as Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla car company, have joined the space race with their own rockets.

Apart from the QB50 project, miniaturized satellites herald a new age. India set a record on Feb. 15 when its PSLV rocket blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre with 104 satellites on board, nearly all CubeSats.

"Nano-sats in general and CubeSats in particular are giving Australia a second chance to enter this business," Aboutanios said. "Nano-sats are putting space within the reach of very small players." The UNSW CubeSat team built a nano-satellite called EC0, and cooperated with other institutions on a second CubeSat.

"In the '50s, '60s and '70s, countries were working hard to build their space capabilities," Aboutanios told the Nikkei Asian Review. "But it was difficult. It was doable by first-world powerful nations. Australia had space capabilities at that time, but gave up on the effort. We don't want to make that mistake again."

It is not only a question of furthering humanity's knowledge of space. It is also a matter of profit. "Globally, the space business is forecast to reach 400 billion pounds ($495 billion) by 2030, Aboutanios said. "The U.K. is driving very hard to get a piece of that. And so should Australia."

The Australian university's EC0 CubeSat in its 3-D printed yellow protective casing, ready for final shipment (Photo courtesy of UNSW)

The CubeSat design was proposed by a group of U.S. science professors in 1999 to allow graduate students to design, build, test and run spacecraft with roughly the same capabilities as the first spacecraft, the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1, launched in 1957. The first CubeSats were launched in 2003, and these days anyone can buy a CubeSat kit, which is marketed online by San Francisco-based nano-satellite company Pumpkin Inc.

The QB50 project was designed to capitalize on the size and cost advantages of CubeSats. "One of the main purposes of the QB50 project is to achieve sustained and affordable access to space for small-scale research space missions and planetary exploration," the project's mission statement says.

Space researchers around the world have embraced CubeSats and applauded their capabilities. "CubeSats, when you look at the trends, are exploding, they're mushrooming in number," Aboutanios said. "That's Australia's opportunity. We have no chance of competing with the likes of the U.S., Europe, China and Russia with the big satellites, satellites that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But we can compete with nano-sats, and their share of the market is growing rapidly."

Most of the QB50 nano-sats will carry one of three devices, or sensors, specified by the QB50 project -- either a multineedle Langmuir Probe, an Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), or a Flux-Probe Experiment, all designed to gauge densities in Earth's lower thermosphere.

"We've chosen the Ion-Neutral Mass Spectrometer," Aboutanios said. "As the satellite is plowing through space, it collects particles in its path and measures their mass, and then we can tell what atoms exist up there. The thermosphere is very little understood, and that's why we're doing this. This will improve our understanding manyfold."

Each of these QB50 nano-sats will also carry one or more devices devised and manufactured by the university that built the tiny spacecraft. "Apart from the QB50 experiment, we're doing a number of experiments of our own," Aboutanios said.

"The structure of the satellite, the frame of the satellite, is usually made out of aluminum, and usually machined. Instead, we have used a thermoplastic, and we've 3-D printed the frame of the satellite, and we coated it with nickel for conductivity. That gives us a lightweight, strong structure that we can rapidly make. We're sending it up into space and we're going to monitor how it behaves in the harsh environment of space."

The relatively low cost of these nano-satellites makes them ideal for small-to-medium nations such as Australia that may have restricted funds for experiments in space. Regardless of whether they last in space for any length of time, the successful launch of these three tiny spacecraft will be an important step for the nascent Australian space industry.

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