4 mins read 29 Jul 2020

UNSW Canberra Space Gearing Up to launch next CubeSat

UNSW Canberra Space team, working with RAAF, are gearing up to send their next CubeSat into space – with the asset currently being put through its paces in simulated space testing.

Credit: UNSW Canberra.

A new Australian CubeSat is currently in ‘simulated-space’ testing, being subjected to extreme conditions in preparation of launching into orbit – in a program that is designed to demonstrate local Australian space technology and capability.

The M2 CubeSat – a project by the University of NSW (UNSW) Canberra Space team working in collaboration with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – will be used to showcase instrumentation such as sensors, communications and on-board processing competence, as well as be utilised for maritime surveillance.

Once reaching orbit, the M2 CubeSat – the final of three space-based assets developed by the collaboration – will itself split into two separate CubeSats to also demonstrate orbiting formation abilities.

UNSW Canberra Space Director Russell Boyce discussed the agility of CubeSats, indicating that these bread-loaf sized spacecraft can be repurposed quickly – making them a more attractive multi-purpose capability vehicle for existing and upcoming companies who wish to utilise space-based services, even once the asset is in orbit.

“These versatile small satellites have re-programmable software defined radios on board and can change their purpose mid-mission, greatly improving their functional capabilities for multiple uses by Defence and civilian users alike,” he said.

M2 Pathfinder

No stranger to sending CubeSats into space, in June of 2020 – the UNSW Canberra Space Team (once again working with the RAAF) sent their M2 Pathfinder (M2PF) mission into orbit aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand.

The M2PF CubeSat’s objectives were to test communications architecture with ground-stations, in addition to demonstrating the ability to reconfigure the onboard software – whilst the asset was in orbit.

M2 Pathfinder was designed, assembled and tested in 10 months through UNSW Canberra Space program – which is inclusive of Australia’s first space mission design facility (Australian National Concurrent Design Facility – ANCDF), opened in 2017 by ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr at UNSW Canberra.

Prior to this, the M1 CubeSat mission was launched in late 2018 – with all three satellites forming part of the $10 million contract UNSW Canberra Space signed with the RAAF.

Test and Try, then Launch

The Wombat XL thermal vacuum testing structure used to simulate the extreme environments of space . Credit: R. Mandow.

Vitally important to ensuring the success of space missions (as much as possible) is to reduce the risks associated with what assets like CubeSats will experience both leaving Earth and in space – by simulating these risks in controlled terrestrial environments.

A key stage of risk for any asset that goes to space is launching from Earth – where the rocket (and all its payloads) experience tremendous forces, such as high acceleration, along with intense vibrations and shaking. Sensitive equipment, electronics and communication instruments are all needed to be in pristine condition to operate nominally once in orbit.

Once in space, the assets are then in harsh environment outside of Earth’s atmosphere – where temperatures fluctuate to the extremes, its practically a vacuum and the ability to service and maintain, are virtually nil.

“It is vital to ensure that we thoroughly test the satellite and recreate as many conditions as possible that it will face through launch and when in orbit,” M2 Mission Lead, Andrin Tomaschett, said.

As such, the Australian National University (ANU) has developed the National Space Testing Facility – a world-class science and engineering testing complex that provides rocket and satellite builders to run real-world simulations, such as radiative heat flux testing, space radiation testing, thermal vacuum testing, thruster vibration testing, and more on their materials and prototypes – learning from these tests prior to launch.

This key step provides risk mitigation strategies and oversight on highly complex and variable scenarios – where once things go wrong, there’s likely no turning back – which can equate to massive financial losses, along with resource setbacks for stakeholders that are involved with these missions.

“So far we have tested how the electronics in the satellite operate in extreme hot and cold temperatures which is conducted in a Thermal Cycling Chamber at facilities at the Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo.

“This was followed by vibration testing where the satellite was placed on a shaker table. The table replicates the intense shaking that M2 will endure on launch. One of the final tests we conduct will be a pressure test which is conducted in a vacuum chamber. This will be run later in the year, closer to the launch date,” he said.

The M2 CubeSat mission is currently planned for launch in early 2021.

Rocket Lab video credit: SciNews YouTube.