Students show complex space projects can be done ‘virtually’
Hundreds of students from across Europe and beyond have designed and built a cube-like satellite which is scheduled for launch next year. If that isn’t a big enough achievement, they did it all without ever meeting face-to-face as a group.
Scattered in universities across Europe, a team of students backed by the European Space Agency (ESA), have built a space-ready satellite called SSETI Express. The collaboration between students, universities and experts involved in the Student Space Education and Technology Initiative (SSETI) has all been carried out via internet, using webcams, integrated logbooks and other forms of electronic communication.
|Artist’s impression of the SSETI satellite designed by European students|
The satellite and its subsystems are being prepared for launch next May in the clean room of the European Space Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. "What we are doing here, in the clean room, is assembling the final spacecraft flight model,” explains Jörg Schaefer of Stuttgart University (DE), who has taken time out from studying for a PhD in satellite systems design to take part in the integration work at ESTEC. “After all the planning and preparation for the mission, it is exciting to see it finally take shape, with new parts being delivered almost every day," he enthuses.
The cube-like SSETI Express, which itself only measures 60cm by 70cm, will carry inside it three smaller 'cubesats' – mini technology testers built by universities in Germany, Japan and Norway – for deployment when in orbit. Tasks for the main unit will include testing the propulsion system and taking photographs of Earth. It will also serve as a transponder for amateur radio hams. The whole package is small enough to piggyback its way to orbit on next year's commercial Cosmos DMC-3 launch from Plesetsk in Russia.
One for all and …
The students have progressed from design to integration in just a year, which is a fast-track schedule for a spacecraft, stresses Neil Melville, who started out at the ESA as a graduate trainee and is now SSETI Express project manager and satellite systems engineer. "Students are carrying out the work with the help of ESTEC engineers, who give us all sorts of tips we would not otherwise know, like the best way to perform spacecraft soldering,” he adds.
During the project, some engineers were invited back to students' home universities to give lectures on specialised subjects, which has passed on valuable expertise and knowledge in this field – an aspect of collaborative research that the Commission is keen to encourage in its own space-related projects and other research carried out under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research.
The group of 250 students behind the project hope to have the flight model completed by the end of November, in time for space worthiness checks, which include vibration and thermal vacuum testing. “The key deadline we face is to transport the spacecraft to Russia by the end of February next year for a projected launch in mid May,” says Melville.
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