Go boldly: Students build prototype for first Irish satellite

Project costing about €1.5m, bulk of which is being paid by the Department of Innovation

Maeve Doyle, PhD student, UCD School of physics research and development with Joe Thompson, PhD student, UCD school of mechanical and materials engineering. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennells Photography

Maeve Doyle, PhD student, UCD School of physics research and development with Joe Thompson, PhD student, UCD school of mechanical and materials engineering. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennells Photography

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A prototype satellite is being built by students at University College Dublin (UCD) as part of plans to send one into space, in what will be a first for the Republic.

The project will cost about €1.5 million, the bulk of which is being paid by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The other backers are the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.

The satellite, called EIRSAT-1 (Educational Irish Research Satellite-1) is a miniature satellite, or CubeSat, and is about the size of a shoebox.

The project was chosen to be part of the second cycle of European Space Agency’s (ESA) Fly your Satellite programme in May 2017.

In a statement on Monday, the project leaders said the ESA had concluded that the objectives of the satellite’s “critical design review” had been achieved, marking an “important milestone” for the project.

The UCD team now moves to the next phase of the programme, and will begin to assemble and test a prototype in newly installed clean rooms at the university.

Milestones

Subject to passing further reviews and mission milestones, the satellite is expected to be delivered to the ESA in mid-2020 with three scientific experiments on board.

The main experiment on-board will be a gamma-ray detector, which aims to detect gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic explosions in the universe, which occur when some stars die or collide.

The second experiment is an in-flight demonstration of thermal control coatings developed by Irish company ENBIO. The third experiment, called “wave-based control” tests a UCD-developed algorithm to control the movement of the satellite.

After launching, it is anticipated to operate for a six to 12-month period. Once in orbit the satellite will communicate data to Earth through a ground radio station, located at “mission control” in the UCD school of physics.

Prof Lorraine Hanlon, the project leader, said the smaller satellite model was “disrupting the traditional space sector globally, providing a fast and cost effective route to gaining spaceflight heritage”.

“As an emerging space nation, Ireland’s future space endeavours will benefit from the skills developed by the talented team of UCD students who are building EIRSAT-1,” she said.

Global opportunities

UCD vice-president for research, innovation and impact Prof Orla Feely said the space sector needs “continuing investment by Government” to ensure the Republic can “maximise its return” from global opportunities.

“The ongoing implementation of the Innovation 2020 strategy is key to building critical mass in key areas of importance in the space sector in Ireland to the benefit of individual enterprises and the economy,” she said.

Lána Salmon, a PhD student in the UCD school of physics, who is leading the ground development element of the project said the “hands-on” training was beneficial for students.

“Students in Ireland, like myself, are for the first time getting the opportunity to contribute to satellite development,” she said.

“I did not expect to be involved in such an exciting Irish project so early in my career. This incredible opportunity has so far provided me with essential hands-on training and links to the Irish space industry, which is of great benefit to my future career.”

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