One small step for UNSW, one giant leap towards Australia’s space future

UNSW space engineers are taking their first foray into space with the University a partner on the international QB50 CubeSat mission. By harnessing new technologies they hope to catapult Australia into the commercial space race. 

Professor Andrew Dempster (Director)

With virtually no space industry in the country, it’s not easy being a space engineer in Australia. But that hasn’t stopped Professor Andrew Dempster and his team at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) thinking big. Dempster is convinced that the time, and technology, is ripe to kick start Australia’s commercial space future; and as if to prove it, this year his team is gearing up to take part in no fewer than five missions into space, the first of which is the international QB50 CubeSat Constellation Mission.

The QB50 mission is a European Union project that will demonstrate the research benefits of deploying a constellation of small satellites. “Part of the idea is that the CubeSats are cheap, small and easy to send up; and by having a whole fleet of them deployed at the same time, they can gather information in much the same way that a large satellite could,” says Dempster.

CubeSats are essentially miniaturised satellites (measuring 20x10x10cm) that use off-the-shelf components for their electronics and structure. This has enabled universities, small companies and even space hobbyists to get a toehold in space research. First developed in 1999, CubeSats have mainly been used by academia, but things are changing fast. Today most launches are for commercial, amateur or even crowdsourced projects.

The QB50 mission is being coordinated by the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (VKI) in Belgium, and aims to launch about 50 CubeSats – designed and built by university teams from all over the world – into orbit to collect scientific data in the lower thermosphere, a relatively unexplored part of the atmosphere about 200-380km above the Earth.

“Normally when satellites come down that low, their mission is over and they just spin around and burn up, but because CubeSats are cheap, it doesn’t matter if they don’t live very long. The QB50 mission is a good match between the platform and the actual mission,” says Dempster.

For the central mission, university teams must send up one of three payloads specified by the VKI. The UNSW team is flying the Ion-Neutral Mass Spectrometer which investigates the ion contents within the ionosphere but aside from this, any room left over can be used by individual teams to carry out their own experiments.

There are huge opportunities out there and this disruptive technology means Australia can develop a commercial space program with a relatively low level of investment and catch up to where other people are.

Professor Andrew Dempster

Dr Joon Wayn Cheong is driving the development of the QB50 cubesat. Although he says it is a serious systems engineering challenge to fit everything in, UNSW’s CubeSats, will have four additional missions.

The first is a specially designed GPS receiver which will gather information on positioning, timing, reflectometry (GPS reflections from the Earth) and occultation (the way the GPS signals bend through the ionosphere).

The second is called RUSH and concerns robust electronics in space. “RUSH is essentially looking at self-repair and reconfigurable electronics,” says Cheong. “So if the satellite gets hit by radiation and something breaks, we want to be able to reconfigure another part of the circuit to do that job, as well as fix the broken bit.”

The primary objective of the third mission, run in collaboration with Data 61 (formerly NICTA - National ICT Australia), is to investigate robust software. “In this experiment we're running the seL4 (the uncrashable microkernal in mobile phones) in space, to see how it works and if it gets upset by radiation,” explains Cheong.

The fourth experiment is not so much a payload, but concerns the effectiveness of the mechanical structure holding the CubeSat together. “We have designed a 3D printed nylon structure electroplated with nickel,” says Cheong. “This material hasn’t flown in space before so we want to know how it holds up.”

Just a few of the current UNSW QB50 team members. Front row L-R: Dr Joon Wayn Cheong, Prof Andrew Dempster Back Row L-R: Cheryl Brown, John Lam, Ben Southwell, Tom CrostonAlthough dates have yet to be finalised, the QB50 mission is set for a mid-year launch via the NanoRacks Program to the International Space Station (ISS). Launch providers include SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. “Once on the ISS, an astronaut will load our CubeSats into a P-POD for deployment by a robotic arm named Kibo. Several CubeSats will sit in this tube while a program calculates the best time to leave the hatch open and let them go,” says Cheong.

Once the CubeSat gets deployed – or in other words shot out of the tube – a little switch gets released that turns the satellite on. “That’s when we pray that everything boots properly and starts transmitting! There’ll be 30 minutes of anxious silence after it’s been released and we will try to hear from it after that,” says Cheryl Brown, Operations Coordinator at ACSER.

The QB50 project has been running since 2011 and has been a huge boon for undergraduate students, students doing their Masters in Satellite Systems and PhD students. “This is a real mission!” says Dempster. “The degree of sophistication for the payloads is very high so the student experience is excellent!”

As exciting as the QB50 mission is, it pales in significance to the plans Dempster has to nurture and grow Australia’s space future. For a start there is Delta-V – a space business accelerator and service company that he wants to establish in Sydney.

“We ran a meeting for local start-ups recently, and had a dozen small companies just starting to look at opportunities in space. New technology has created a new paradigm. This is space 2.0 and a really new way of doing things. The general concept of having a constellation of satellites, for example, is something which is really taking off – I recently heard of an Airbus contract to build 900 microsatellites  for a space internet!

Dr Joon Wayn Cheong examining stack alignment on the UNSW-EC0 QB50 cubesat nanosatellite.

“There are huge opportunities out there and this type of disruptive technology means Australia can develop a commercial space program with a relatively low level of investment and catch up to where other people are. The University is interested, we’re trying to get state and federal funding, and we have investors and sponsors interested too. It’s been a long time coming but I think in the next six months we’ll fall over the line!”

QB50 is supported and funded by the European Commission. The team at UNSW is working on two CubeSats for the project, its own plus one developed in collaboration with partners at Sydney University and the Australian National University. A third Australian QB50 CubeSat is being developed by the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. UNSW’s RUSH experiment has some funding from the Australian Research Council and the team is also collaborating with partners from UNSW’s School of Computer Science Engineering.

QB50 CubeSat specs:

  • Cost: $60,000-$80,000 each
  • Weight: approximately 2kg
  • Dimensions: 20x10x10cm
  • Lifespan: up to 6 months

Who is your space hero?

Professor Andrew Dempster: Andrew doesn’t have heroes, but does give Commander Chris Hadfield (of ISS and YouTube fame) a commendation because he said Australia needs a space agency when he was visiting the country

Dr Joon Wayn Cheong: Elon Musk - founder, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, business magnate, engineer, inventor and investor. 

Cheryl Brown: Daniel Faber - CEO of Deep Space Industries, UNSW alumnus and early Bluesat team member.

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