Aug 9, 2016 | By Benedict

The Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) has used 3D printing to create the chassis of UNSW-Ec0, a small satellite, or “CubeSat,” that will be launched from the International Space Station in late 2016 as part of the European-led QB50 mission.

The UNSW-Ec0 CubeSat

QB50 is a long-term space project that will culminate in the launch of 50 CubeSats, small (20 x 10 x 10cm) satellites built by universities from all across the world, from a low-cost launch vehicle. The 50 satellites will each carry out important research tasks in the lower thermosphere, a little-understood region that lies between 200 and 380 km above earth. In anticipation of the launch of these CubeSats, which is scheduled for the end of 2016, scientists from Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW) have shared some information about their own QB50 projects, some of which have involved the use of 3D printing.

While QB50 will exhibit CubeSats developed in countries from all over the world, three of the miniature satellites were conceived and built in Australia, where experts from a number of universities poured their experience and knowledge into the space-bound vessels. Andrew Dempster, Director of ACSER, (part of UNSW) recently commented on the importance of studying the thermosphere using CubeSats. “This region is poorly understood and hard to measure,” he said. “And yet it's the interface between our planet and space. It's where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with the Earth and generates auroras and potential hazards that can affect power grids and communications.”

While the broader institution of UNSW had a hand in two of Australia’s CubeSat’s, ACSER’s particular contribution is a satellite called “UNSW-Ec0.” This CubeSat will carry the INMS (Ion/Neutral Mass Spectrometer), a device that will measure the mass of ions and neutral atoms in the thermosphere, as well as four other non-QB50 payloads. UNSW-Ec0 has an expected lifespan of around 6 months, weighs just 2 kg, and is powered by solar cells and batteries.

The UNSW-Ec0 CubeSat

The two other Australian CubeSats are INSPIRE-2, a joint project between the University of Sydney, UNSW, and the Australian National University which will measure the electron temperature and plasma density in the thermosphere; and SUSat, a joint project between between the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia.

Excitingly, the ACSER-made UNSW-Ec0 features a chassis made from 3D printed thermoplastic. The satellite will therefore act as a kind of experiment in itself, testing whether such 3D printed structures are strong enough to survive the rigors of space. “We have designed a 3D printed nylon structure electroplated with nickel,” explained Dr Joon Wayn Cheong, a member of the UNSW-Ec0 team. “This material hasn’t flown in space before so we want to know how it holds up.”

Other contributors to the Australian satellite projects have sought to emphasize the importance of QB50: “This is the most extensive exploration of the lower thermosphere ever, collecting measurements in the kind of detail never before tried,” said Elias Aboutanios, project leader of UNSW-Ec0 and a senior lecturer at UNSW. “The satellites will operate for 3-9 months—and may last up to a year—orbiting this little-studied region of space, before their orbits decay and they re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.”

Dr Elias Abountanios (above) and Dr Joon Wayn Cheong with the CubeSat

All three Australian-made CubeSats, along with 37 others from around the world, will be launched to the ISS in December on an Orbital ATK Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, inside a Cygnus cargo freighter. The CubeSats will be deployed into the thermosphere around one month later.

 

 

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