Why is it important for Malta to have satellites Pt.2/3
If you missed part 1/3 you can read it here: CLICK HERE
Last week I wrote the first part of this 3 part series on Malta’s new emerging space endeavors. University of Malta finally took the plunge and have embarked on the first National space project for Malta, creating a Maltese satellite.
Part 1 was all about nerdish details, so now that you read the technical background, let’s get more specific. The sat team at Uni decided to go with a CubeSat. As discussed these are launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and have a specific and set lifetime according to the orbit altitude. They have no propulsion to adjust their orbit, hence it’s a self-decaying orbit as in LEO (as discussed previously) the sats are still effected by Earth’s gravity.
Having said that they have no propulsion, does not mean they have no steering or remote adjustment. Lots of Cubesats are sacrificing some weight and space to have inertial mechanics to at least rotate it in the XYZ plane, it won’t move from its orbit but it can rotate, this is particularly useful to adjust the relative to earth, remember that the Earth is a sphere (albeit not a perfect one) so satellites who are trying to image a specific position need to adjust to keep pointing to that specific spot on earth whilst hurtling in space at 28,000 Km/h (just to maintain orbit - remember that the more the orbit decays the faster the travel some of which is offset by drag with the atmosphere).
At the moment I have no indication whether UOMSAT1 will have inertial attitude and azimuth adjustments.
So, as promised let’s start by saying who’s involved in this project. Obviously to embark on a project like this with all its complexities requires a team with experience. The lead in this project is obviously the University of Malta specifically the ASTREA the Astrionics Research group[i]. Birmingham University the SERENE – Space Environment and Radio Engineering Group[ii], MARL the Malta Amateur Radio League[iii], the University of Rome and the Gauss[iv] Team which is the Launch partner. Remember that building the satellite is part of the endeavor, it’s useless having a satellite on your desk, you need it in space.
How did this project start? Well, Dr. Marc A. Azzopardi[v] attended the AIAA conference in 2011 in Seattle were a talk was given how Universities with modest budgets are accessing space. Following the first partnership between an MSc student in Malta and a PhD student in Birmingham. Work began in 2015 with mission objectives, several more students joined the melee. Especially for the Maltese it was a very steep learning curve but the project is on track to launch in 2018.
Although small satellites have substantially reduced the entry costs, they are still considerable. So far, the project is being privately funded by piecing together monies from academic staff, students, donations in-kind from local industry, and the small annual research allocations of individual academics. Enormous cost savings are being made by building our own customized test equipment from scratch. In the meantime we are actively seeking sponsorship.
So how much is it costing?
- Believe it or not just launching the damn thing (payload costs) is already €25,000
- With astute building and efficient material use Uom Managed to curb the material costs at €30,000 which although they seem a lot, it really isn’t
- Specialised Assembly costs :- €10,000 ,
- The all-important ground station is at €10,000
- Uom has also astutely are building all the specialised testing equipment which resulted in hefty cost savings and is only costing €10,000
- Then there’s another €10,000 in overheads and the required certifications.
- This brings the cost to around €90,000 which is right in the ballpark of CubeSats being launched at the moment.
So when are we going to space as a nation?
- Launch scheduled for end of 2018 depending on availability of opportunities.
- Launch service is being brokered via an Italian company (Gauss Team) and a Russian service provider (Kosmotras)
- Launch is probably from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan using a DNEPR vehicle
So why aren’t we going to ESA (seemed like an obvious thing)
Believe it or not ESA (European Space Agency) commercial activities are still not organised and it has been commented throughout the space and aeronautics industry on the slow progress of ESA to get with the times and organise their commercial aspect. ESA has the Arianne rocket which is used for space cargo, however, again, this is taking ages and ESA seems are not really interested in small sat launches, which is a down-right shame, which will result in market delays. ESA is being left in the dust when it comes to commercial space cargo.
At the moment the ESA seems like they more interested in working with the Russians via their SOYUZ vehicles. Which again is a shame since this limits the progress of space research in Europe.
Why a Maltese Satellite?
Well, let’s start by saying that we’re one of the few countries left to put our own satellites in space and we’re about 60 years behind the biggest players. Most of the European countries have satellites including; Greece, Belgium, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland (in neutral orbit… lool), Azerbaijan, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Belarus, Ukraine, Denmark, Norway, Luxemburg, Sweden, Bulgaria, Holland, (after writing all this, better I wrote who in Europe doesn’t have satellites).
Specific Weather and Environmental Monitoring
When scientist and predictive models for weather forecasting in Malta have to rely on other satellites, which as you might have noticed, Malta is usually on the periphery of such satellites and have to rely on several other non-specific data, which means, forecast models for Malta are inaccurate at the best of times, downright off by 3 days in the worst of cases. We have all the computational power for good weather forecasting but lack the specific data and observation.
Ohhh god, where to start about traffic in Malta, disastrous comes to mind. One of the issues (from a multitude) is that we have no eye in the sky able to give us information about traffic as a holistic view. Hence, we have no traffic tracking and management algorithms, we have no nation-wide data about how to best start solving this insane issue. Yes, public transport, yadda yadda yadda, however, without information you can’t start solving any problem let alone one as complex as this, with tidal habits, cause and effect dynamics. We do currently get traffic data, if you ever passed on a couple of wires in the street and felt the thump thump, they are counting cars, however this data is quite rudimentary, invasive and costly and impossible to deploy nation-wide. Now imagine this, a system to track and analyse traffic at a nation-wide level at once….. now we’re talking.
Marine, Geographic and Geological Surveying
One of the biggest aims of satellites is geographical surveying and geological surveying, albeit the small sat is all the way up at LEO, the sensors on it can finally start surveying Malta with in a whole new way (with new eyes, never seen before in Malta). Sea drop and rise levels and tidal effects.
Satellites are all about information. A new dimension of nation-wide information which can only be gained by having a sensor base in space looking at us from 38,000Km above sea level.
UomSat1 is not going to have standard optical sensors hence don’t worry about having that outdoor shower you were waiting for all winter. No one will be spying on you from space. Well, no one as in, not UoMSat1, there are much larger satellites for that[vi]… but having worked in a civil-military environment, satellite time is extremely expensive and no one is going to waste those kind of resources for looking at your pruned behind whilst having that outdoor shower. Let’s just say they have bigger fish to fry.
Hoping for Data
There are currently no details about data use and data encryption. Hoping for University to have some data as open source data which Maltese researchers can make use of such as the Copernicus sentinels.[vii]