ANU joins the nanospace race

7 October 2015

A major European satellite mission has turned to The Australian National University (ANU) to help test science units for nano-satellites ahead of a mass launch next year.

Dr Dhiren Kataria, from University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), is visiting the ANU facilities to test the proto-flight instrument and conduct possible further tests on instruments for CubeSats - nano-satellites typically 10 centimetres cubed - in conditions similar to the upper atmosphere.

The tests will be ahead of the launch of the QB50 space mission in 2016, which will see a mass launching of 50 CubeSats in a low orbit around Earth.

The important contribution ANU could make to the project became apparent when ANU Professors Christine Charles and Rod Boswell visited the Mullard Space Science Laboratory earlier this year.

"As we explained how our unique facilities could give them the low energy beams they need for testing, they became very excited and made plans to come to visit us immediately," said Professor Charles, from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering (RSPE).

"The space simulation, plasma thruster and plasma diagnostics facilities at ANU are complementary to those at MSSL, significantly enhancing the ground calibration and testing of these instruments on Earth, which is very tricky to do."

CubeSats are emerging as a space industry standard design for low-cost space research. Originally conceived for student projects, more than 100 CubeSats have now been launched around the Earth and even around Mars.

They are now available as off-the-shelf items at a cost of just over $100,000, and are made by a number of satellite companies, such as Boeing.

The new ANU facilities at RSPE and the Mt Stromlo Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre give Australia an important role in this growing million-dollar industry, Professor Boswell said.

"We're the back-room boffins in this project, and if all goes well, more contracts will come in from other countries such as Japan, Korea or Canada," Professor Boswell said.

The QB50 program has 27 countries building satellites for the mass launch, including China, US, Brazil and Russia. Three Australian universities are contributing CubeSats to the program, The University of Sydney, The University of Adelaide and UNSW.

Professor Charles said ANU stands to benefit from working with Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

"Dr Kataria has been involved in satellite launches since the late 1990s. What we can learn from his experience will make ANU a truly world-class facility," she said.