Cubes on orbit: serious science thanks to almost toy space satellites

Cubes on orbit: serious science thanks to almost toy space satellites

Ukrainian scientists explore the least studied part of the Earth’s atmosphere using the nanosatellite within the framework of large international project QB50

We do not know what is going on at those heights

Borys Mykhailovych Rassamakin is heading the scientific group that created two nanosatellites of CubeSat standard that currently operate on low earth orbit

Borys Mykhailovych Rassamakin is heading the scientific group that created two nanosatellites of CubeSat standard that currently operate on low earth orbit

–  We do not know what is going on at those heights. After all, planes do not fly so high and large satellites do not descend so low, – young man explains at the elementary level how nanosatellites open new horizons of space exploration. Nazarii Bendasiuk – PhD student at the Institute of Telecommunication Systems of National Technical University of Ukraine “Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute” and member of the scientific group that created the second Ukrainian nanosatellite “PolyITAN-2-SAU”.

In April of this year it and other similar apparatus were launched from the Cape Canaveral space-launch complex (USA), and on the 26-th of May it started its journey along the near-earth orbit. At this very moment, when we with our cameraman are listening to Nazarii in the premises of nanosatellite control center, we are separated from it by more than 6,000 kilometers.

Long-Liver from KPI

The first Ukrainian nanosatellite “PolyITAN-1” of CubeSat standard was launched in June 2014. Prefix “nano” in this very case means that the weight of the apparatus does not exceed 10 kilograms. If more – then it will be microsatellite (up to 200 kilograms).

Group of scientists from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, headed by Borys Mykhailovych Rassamakin, Head of Nanosatellite Technologies Laboratory and Heat Pipes Laboratory of the Faculty of Heat Power Engineering, created the first nonosettelite. This satellite performs no highly “effective work” and it should not perform it. Its main goal is to make new technologie smoother. After all, prior to the performance of any work in space, you shall learn how to fly in space. “PolyITAN-1” has coped with this task too well.

– We were a little bit not confused, rather we can not get a full understanding of what led to such a long operation of our first satellite, – Borys Rassamakin said. – After all, having the declared operational life of one year and having the expected operational life based on tests – of two years, it is operating on orbit for over three years already.

Tough height

And the second nanosatellite, created by the same group, is meant for the collection of unique scientific information. It is one of the QB50 project participants, funded by the European Union. One of the main goals of this project – to explore Earth’s atmosphere at a height from 90 to 300 kilometers.

PolyITAN-1 запустили влітку 2014 року з російської пускової бази «Ясний», а PolyITAN-2-SAU – у квітні цього року з космодрому на мисі Канаверал

Currently there are theoretical models that show what is happening in this part of the atmosphere. But we are lack of information collected directly “on-site” to check or adjust the calculations. As a matter of fact, special rockets that are launched for the exploration of these atmosphere slices, fly there for several minutes only. Seattleites flying along the eccentric orbit (for instance, such that the distance from the Earth varies from 200 kilometers to 3 thous. kilometers) are also used. But the period of stay within the very same atmosphere slices is measured in tens of minutes. Study of these heights from the higher orbits or earth-based stations has major deficiencies too.

Ideal option – to launch whole network of satellites that will fly at the required heights for a long time and will make required measurements. The problem is in the point that cost of such “flock” consisting of dozens of apparatus will be exorbitant, and they will “live” for a short while due to atmospheric braking (notwithstanding that it has low-density at those heights) – up to a year and a half, or a little longer.

The only possible way to implement this concept – to use the satellites of CubeSat format. To start with we shall know that CubeSat satellites look like cubes. Dimensions of each of them – strictly 10 x 10 x 11.35 cm. Weight – not more than 1.33 kg. And complete specification of CubeSat format consisting of 22 pages may be found on the special website.

Such cubes (or almost cubes) may be put on top of one another. Thus, “double” of “triple” CubeSat is obtained. For instance, the second Ukrainian nanosatellite consists of two units, and it is possible to combine a total of not more than six units.

One of the main advantages of nanosatellites – their price. Finished mass produced apparatus may be purchased starting from 60 thousand dollars. This is merely nothing compared to large apparatus, manufactured in single quantities, or in small quantity.

Furthermore several dozens of them are launched at a time, which enables to share the cost of the launch between the participants. According to Borys Rassamakin, the launch of “single” nanosatellite costs from 60 thous. dollars, although, “PolyITAN-1” was successfully launched for 20 thous. dollars only thanks to the sponsorship of the State Space Agency and “Yuzhnoye” State Design Office. Launch of the apparatus consisting of two or more units will cost more.

O Hunter

Initially it was expected that as a part of QB50 project, 50 satellites will be launched, but some participants fell out of the race without reaching the space-launch complex. The first batch of 28 nanosatellites, containing one Ukrainian, was launched from Cape Canaveral using the Atlas V rocket in resupply spacecraft “Cygnus CRS OA-7”. It delivered them to the International Space Station, and from there on May 26 they were launched to low earth orbit. The second batch – 8 nanosatellites – was launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre of India using the PSLV rocket and were successfully placed into orbit too.

Therefore, as of today, within their orbits around the Earth 36 nanosatellites operate as a part of QB50 project.

Information about the atmosphere is gathered by them using one of the scientific instruments. For instance, “PolyITAN-2-SAU” is equipped with sensor of counter gas flow FIPEX (Flux-Φ-ProbeExperiment). Its goal is to measure the characteristics of molecular and atomic oxygen (atomic oxygen is the key element at these heights).

In addition to Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, universities from the US, France and Germany – a total of 23 countries – participate in the project. The von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (Belgium) coordinates their work.

It is scheduled that satellites will operate on orbit during a period from one to two years.

Data received by them will afford us to build more accurate behavioral model of the atmosphere at these heights. From the applied viewpoint this will help to better understand in what way the space weather may affect, for instance, GPS signals, and also in what way the solar activity may interfere with the operation of electrical grids and space satellites. Moreover, QB50 will provide means for the improvement of space technologies in themselves.

The team of Borys Rassamakin is already planning to do next projects. Namely, the third nanosatellite will be meant for the remote sensing of Earth’s surface. And within one and a half – two years, if there is a funding, scientists from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute are able to construct the satellite for unique cosmobiological experiment.