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Lumen Summer 2017 Issue
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University fires into space with CubeSat

Dr Matthew Tetlow

Dr Matthew Tetlow
Having their work blasted into space will be the ultimate achievement for a group of University of Adelaide engineering students and staff.


They’ve designed and built a new CubeSat, a type of miniaturised satellite, and one of only four nanosatellites developed in Australia.


It will be sent via rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) and then deployed into orbit around the Earth.


The satellite is part of a European-funded project called QB50, an international network of 50 CubeSats that will study a poorly understood part of the Earth’s atmosphere, the thermosphere.


“The thermosphere is a layer of atmosphere starting at about 95km and reaching up to 600km above the Earth’s surface,” says project leader Dr Matthew Tetlow, Research Fellow in the School of Mechanical Engineering.


“It’s a scientific challenge and we don’t know that much about it.


“On the first day of the deployment of the CubeSats into orbit, we’ll double our understanding of the thermosphere, like its relationship to other layers of the atmosphere, and how that affects our climate.”


The Adelaide-built CubeSat has now left the country and is currently awaiting its December launch to the ISS aboard an Antares rocket.


The CubeSat will remain in Earth’s orbit from six months to two years, gathering much-needed data about the thermosphere.


For the satellite to make that journey has involved the hard work and ingenuity of a team of 40 students and staff.


“The CubeSat represents a major design and construction challenge, but it also shows what our incredibly talented students can do,” Matthew says.


“Everything you would expect to see in a full-scale satellite can be found in our CubeSat.


“We have a thermal regulation system, communications and autonomous control systems and it has its own computer to handle the scientific experiments. Our CubeSat also has solar panels to provide energy.”


Matthew says nanosatellites are the way of the future for space research.


“It doesn’t make sense to launch huge, highly expensive satellites to do the kind of research we’re doing.


“And our work with the students to build our satellite has shown what is possible without a multi-billion-dollar budget.


“I’m very proud of the students’ work, and I look forward to early next year when our CubeSat is in space and talking to us.”


The satellite launch will be shown live on NASA TV.


Jade part of the next great challenge


Jade Chantrell

Jade Chantrell

Among the University of Adelaide students working on the CubeSat project is Jade Chantrell, who’s studying for a Bachelor of Aerospace and Bachelor of Science double degree.
Lumen spoke with Jade about pursuing her interests in science and technology, and her work on CubeSat.


Q: Why did you decide to get into this field?
A: For many years I’ve been fascinated with planes and aeronautics, especially planes’ lifting capacity, because they’re such bulky objects. I always loved space; I was a bit of a sci-fi nut.
Space science represents a great technological challenge. There are many new and exciting discoveries to be made in space exploration, including what we might discover on other planets or moons. Advances in technology due to space research could be used for a range of applications here on Earth.
Not only is aerospace a fascinating subject but I think it’s a very useful field to go into and has taught me a broad range of skills so far.


Q: What is your role on the CubeSat project?
A: I started working on CubeSat at the beginning of the year.
My project is software-based; looking at the attitude control system and finding ways to make it more efficient and to optimise its performance. Attitude control concerns the orientation of the satellite or the pointing direction in orbit. You want it to remain pointing in the same direction relative to its orbit.
The satellite needs to be stable or still, so you can maintain your communications and have consistency in scientific experiments.


Q: What have you learned from this project?
A: For me it’s the practical application of theory that we’ve learnt throughout our degree, applying that to a real-world situation. But every problem is unique and there are a number of conceptual barriers you have to break through in order to solve them.
Before starting this project, I had no idea how a satellite was put together. As well as working on my part of the project, I’ve also been able to observe others, and understand how the software is organised, how the various components are put together, and so on.


Q: Is it exciting having the results of your work in space?
A: It is exciting, yes! I’ll watch the launch live on YouTube if I can. I’m hoping the International Space Station will also video our CubeSat being deployed into space, which would be cool.


Story by David Ellis

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