SA university gears up for satellite launch

2013-11-05 12:16
An Epsilon rocket lifts off from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki town, Kagoshima, western Japan. Japan launched the new rocket it hopes will be a cheaper and more efficient way of sending satellites into space.

An Epsilon rocket lifts off from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kimotsuki town, Kagoshima, western Japan. Japan launched the new rocket it hopes will be a cheaper and more efficient way of sending satellites into space.

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Cape Town - A satellite built by local experts is set to be launched on 21 November from Russia and it will focus on collecting data on space weather.

This would be third South African satellite, and local developers are confident that it will function according to specifications.

"Yes we are [confident], and I base that assumption on the fact that the satellite has undergone the typical environmental tests that any satellite is subjected to prior to launch," Professor Robert Van Zyl, director of the French South African Institute of Technology told News24.

Students at the institute (F'SATI) located at CPUT campus in Bellville built the micro satellite with support from the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) and the department of science and technology.

The ZACUBE-1 measures only 10cm³ and weighs 1.2kg, and it will carry out readings of the ionosphere. This work is critical to help scientists understand how the sun interacts with the Earth's magnetic field.

Purpose

"The satellite carries a high frequency beacon that serves as an active radio source orbiting Earth. The radio signal will be received at our ground stations and from interpreting the direction from which the signal is received, we can deduce the propagation properties of the ionosphere," said Van Zyl.

Solar radiation can result in disruption of the ionosphere, particularly when there is a coronal mass ejection. The radiation has implications, for example, in air traffic and GPS and TV satellites.

But the satellite has a larger purpose than the readings of the ionosphere: It serves as a training programme for graduates.

"The ZACUBE-1 mission is used as a training platform for young engineers and technologists to prepare them for the national space industry. CubeSats have initially been developed for exactly this purpose, as it provides a technology platform that is within the technology and financial means of many universities," Van Zyl said.

He added that the F'SATI has trained 30 postgraduate students and 15 engineers-in-training in the CubeSat programme since 2009.

"ZACUBE-1 will serve as a technology demonstrator. It will carry hardware that was developed by students and staff at CPUT, and which will be used in future missions as well. The ZACUBE-1 mission will assist us in improving these subsystems," said Van Zyl.

The space industry has been seen as a way to fast track science in nations and though there have been failures, the development of space research often leads to benefits closer to home.

Testing

It is expected that the development of the micro satellite which will orbit at an altitude of around 600km launched from Yasny Launch Base in Russia will spur the growth of the industry in SA.

SumbandilaSat was one of the first satellites built by Stellenbosch University with support from the CSIR, but it succumbed to the harsh space environment when radiation destroyed its computer in 2011.

Van Zyl said that while the ZACUBE-1 was subjected to a battery of testing and passed, there was always a risk that things could go wrong.

"One must remember, though, that CubeSats are built with commercial off-the-shelf components to limit cost. Furthermore, their small size usually prevents redundancy design of critical systems. These factors do pose a risk that is associated with all CubeSat missions."


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