Inspite of a Successful Launch, Australian Satellite Not Relaying Signals

The UNSW-EC0, was the first Australian satellite successfully deployed from the International Space Station in 15 years. The satellite was launched from the International Space Station (ISS) on 25 May, at 3:25pm AEST, and made its first pass over Sydney at 4:21pm AEST. However, inspite of the successful launch, the engineers at UNSW’s (University of New South Wales) Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) were unable to establish contact when it made its first pass above Sydney.

The engineers however are not overly concerned yet. According to Elias Aboutanios, Project Leader of the UNSW-EC0 cubesat and Deputy Director of ACSER, the team is troubleshooting a number of scenarios for why they didn’t detect it. The problem may range from checking ground equipment to exploring the possibility that the batteries might have discharged.

The team claims, that if it is the batteries, the solar panels on the satellite will be able to recharge, but because the satellite was deployed in the Earth’s shadow, they may have to wait for it to make a few orbits before it has recharged, especially if it’s tumbling. This could take 24 to 48 hours. The ISS made four more passes over Sydney on Friday 25 May with the UNSW team of 15 researchers and students trying again to establish contact, and run a series of tests for scenarios to explain the lack of a signal.

UNSW-EC0 is one of three Australian research satellites - two of them built at the UNSW - that were launched on April 19 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its mission is to explore the little-understood region above Earth known as the thermosphere, study its atomic composition as well as test new robust computer chips and GPS devices developed at UNSW. In addition, its 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 and much more customizable.

The cubesat is part of an international QB50 mission, a swarm of 36 small satellites – known as ‘cubesats’ and weighing about 1.3 kg each meant to carry out the most extensive measurements ever undertaken of the thermosphere, a region between 200 and 380 km above Earth. This poorly-studied and usually inaccessible zone of the atmosphere helps shield Earth from cosmic rays and solar radiation, and is vital for communications and weather formation.

These are the first Australian satellites to go into space in 15 years, the other two being, Fedsat in 2002 and WRESAT in 1967. The UNSW-EC0 was deployed from the ISS from a Nanoracks launcher, a ‘cannon’ that ejects cubesats at a height of 380 km (the same as the ISS), allowing them to drift down to a lower orbit where they can begin their measurements.

The thermosphere zone of the atmosphere, according to UNSW engineers is poorly understood and really hard to measure. It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with Earth, influencing weather, generating auroras and creating hazards that can affect power grids and communications. Thus it’s really important to learn a lot more about it and the QB50 cubesats will probably tell more than ever known, about the thermosphere.

QB50 is a collaboration of more than 50 universities and research institutes in 23 countries, headed by the von Karman Institute (VKI) in Belgium. It is the first international real-time coordinated study of the thermosphere phenomena where the data generated by the constellation will be helpful for scientists around the world.