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The first-ever Irish-made satellite could be orbiting the planet next year

UCD’s EIRSAT-1 is undergoing extensive testing ahead of a 2022 launch to low-Earth orbit.

Image: Shutterstock/Anton Balazh

A TEAM OF Irish researchers are heading to Belgium next month where Ireland’s first-ever satellite will undergo a series of final tests, bringing it one step closer to a 2022 launch into low Earth orbit (LEO).

The Educational Irish Research Satellite 1 (EIRSAT-1) is the size of a shoebox, but when in orbit will collect data from the three science experiments on-board while powering itself, orientating itself, and communicating to the ground station on the roof of the UCD School of Physics.

For the rest of this month, the team of students and professors are caring out extensive testing on the qualification model – a duplicate aircraft of the flight model. 

Members of the team will then travel to Belgium where further testing will be carried out through September and October on the 20cm long and 10 x 10cm wide miniature satellite.

Testing at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Belgian facility will see EIRSAT-1 undergo two main tests to see if the satellite can survive being launched into space as each of the individual components has already qualified.

The assembled qualification model will be tested to see if it can survive the vibrational loads that come with being launched into space. It will also be subjected to extreme heating and cooling cycles under vacuum to confirm the spacecraft is ready for orbit.

If all goes smoothly it will mark a major milestone in the project and see the team go straight into the next phase of finalising the flight model. It will then go through a flight acceptance review before it’s passed over to the ESA who will handle the launch – details of which are still not mapped out.

EIRSAT-1 will hitch a ride on an ESA procured rocket to LEO, normally an altitude of less than 1000km but far enough away to ensure that it’s not pulled back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it would burn up on re-entry.

Satellites in this orbit travel at a speed of around 7.8 km per second; at this speed, a satellite takes approximately 90 minutes to circle Earth. More about the common types of orbit here.

Source: European Space Agency, ESA/YouTube

There have been a few launch dates flouted in the last four years but as project lead UCD Professor Lorraine Hanlon told TheJournal “we’re doing this for the first time and the result of that is it takes longer, because you’re building two complete versions of the system”.

“A lot of the process has been learning how to build a satellite, no one has ever done that before in this country.

“At the moment, we’re hoping at least to have our part done by the middle of next year. And then we hand the spacecraft over to ESA where it becomes a procurement issue, and we don’t know how long that part of the process will take.”

Professor Hanlon made the giant leap to apply to the ESA’s Fly Your Satellite Programme (FYSP) back in 2017. After spending a few years as a research fellow at the ESA, Hanlon said she knew wanted to bring that same excitement to students, “to give them opportunities to really see that they’re good enough to do this on a global stage.” 

Fellow FYSP participants from Sapienza University of Rome recently launched their miniature satellite, LEDSAT, from the ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The standard dimensions of CubeSats, like EIRSAT-1 and LEDSAT, have shaken up the space industry by making accessing space easier and cheaper for those who could previously only dream of it.

Hanlon hopes that EIRSAT-1′s launch, currently estimated to take place in the third quarter of 2022, is something that the whole country gets excited about given its groundbreaking nature.

“Space isn’t something that only other countries do, or only big space agencies do. Space is now in the realm where smaller countries can have national programmes and be credible,” she said. In recent years, Ireland has developed a thriving space industry and research community, facilitated primarily through Ireland’s membership of the ESA.

Students who get to work on the project during its life span will gain experience that will advance Ireland’s place in the space industry, explains Professor Hanlon, adding that it also “builds capability, a track record, and an understanding of how to develop a space system, which you can then use to replicate or to commercialise or to advance, or to build collaborations and partnerships internationally”.

PhD student from UCD’s School of Space Science and Technology Gabriel Finneran said he’s been interested in space since he was a child but never “imagined I would be helping to build a satellite at university”.

He hopes the mission can inspire young people to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or to see the space industry as a viable career path that you can stay in Ireland to pursue.

A 2020 study by the Department of Education found that targets to increase the number of students taking STEM subjects in the Leaving Certificate by 20% by 2026 are unlikely to be met. The report also noted that another target to increase the number of female students taking STEM subjects by 40% is not on track to be achieved by 2026.

Team members like Finneran have been sharing EIRSAT-1′s story at festivals, talks and workshops for primary schools in UCD. One workshop resulted in a collaborative poem by students in the JCSP libraries project that will be etched on the side of the satellite.

The EIRSAT-1 project is for the most part quite technical with students across STEM disciplines making up the team, but these subjects are only part of the space story, according to Professor Hanlon.

“Some things we do, like building a satellite, are necessarily technical, but that doesn’t mean that people are not inspired, or excited and don’t want to participate.

“To me, there’s enormous value in being open to everyone who wants to contribute.”

What will it do in orbit?

Once the flight model is handed over to the ESA you might naively think the work is done, joked Hanlon, but really it’s a whole other phase because “now you’re worried about orbit behaviour, troubleshooting, diagnosing, communicating, and getting the maximum data”.

All of the planning is a full-time job itself, she said.  Once EIRSAT-1 is in orbit the team will only have five to ten-minute windows, maybe five or six times a day, when they can actually collect data from the spacecraft.

“It’s very challenging to operate within those kinds of narrow timeframes so the team will have to stick to a very strict script,” she said.

Initial setbacks from the Covid-19 pandemic helped propel the team forward and taught them some valuable lessons when it came to operating the satellite remotely. EIRSAT-1 has been locked away in the Belfield campus cleanroom – a lab away from pollutants like dust, airborne microbes, and aerosol particles. 

“We got a little bit further ahead than we would have otherwise been at this stage in the project because the team was keen to make as much progress as possible,” said Professor Hanlon.

Once the satellite is in orbit, it essentially has three aims. The first is to detect gamma-ray bursts and send the information back to the team on the ground. Gamma-ray bursts occur during the death of massive stars and are detected here from galaxies that may be billions of light-years away.

The second aim of the satellite is the testing of EMOD, a type of heat-resistant paint developed by Irish company Enbio. The experiment will see how the protective coatings perform in space. EMOD consists of two black panels and two white panels which will have their temperature monitored.

EIRSAT-1 has an “off the shelf” attitude (or pointing direction) control system at present but the team will upload their algorithm at some point during the mission. This third experiment will allow the team to control the orientation of the satellite using the Wave Based Control (WBC) technique developed by the dynamics and control group in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

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The ground team can only communicate with the satellite when it’s over Ireland, and they estimate that this will only happen for about 90 minutes per day depending on the orbit.

“The main reason we need EIRSAT-1 to see Ireland is if we want to send commands up to it, it has to come overhead,” said Professor Hanlon. “If we ended up for some weird reason in an orbit that didn’t allow us to do that, it would be a problem.”

Rendering_of_EIRSAT-1_in_deployed_configuration Rendering of EIRSAT-1 in deployed configuration Source: ESA

CubeSats in LEO have short lifespans and don’t leave much of a trace when they burn up on re-entry. The EIRSAT-1 team are hoping their CubeSat will stay in orbit for one to two years, but that all depends on the conditions and altitude it ends up in. 

It will be able to adjust its position using the WBC but can’t do any collision avoidance manoeuvres should it run into another satellite or some space debris that is now cluttering LEO.

“It’s one risk the team can do nothing about,” said Hanlon as EIRSAT-1 is set to join hundreds of thousands of man-made objects that are zipping around our planet.  Space debris mitigation efforts mean the UCD team has to comply with the usual responsibilities that govern ESA missions. 

Should anything go wrong, the trusty qualification model on the ground will help the team to diagnose any faults.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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