Big progress in tiny satellites

On the screen: 483 days, 8 hours, 47 minutes... Second after second, the virtual chronometer counts out the life of a small cubic object, weighting less than one kilogram, occupying a volume of one litre and revolving around the Earth since September 2009. “And to think that we planned on only four months of operation in space,” says project leader Muriel Noca. “SwissCube is still flying and operational today.” Orbiting at more than 700 kilometres above the ground, the picosatellite – as unusually light and small satellites are called – was entirely built in Switzerland, and monitors relentlessly the permanently shining “airglow” caused by the recombination of charged atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere.

When she arrived at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL) in 2005, was Muriel Noca confident that this extraordinary project would materialise four years later on the launch pad of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre north of Chennai, India? “The schedule was tight,” she admits. Initiated by Maurice Borgeaud, then the director of the Space Centre at EPFL, and by Professor Herbert Shea, it was a gamble inspired by an initiative of Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), and there were plenty of pitfalls along the way. The tiny satellite was to have virtually all the same sub-systems as are fitted to larger satellites. Most importantly, it should be completely designed by students, in order for them to acquire practical experience in aerospace. An exemplary partnership

The EPFL laboratories were soon involved, but the complexity of the project required extensive skills in engineering, especially in avionics. Soon, collaborations were established with partners in the network of the University of Applied Sciences in Western Switzerland (HES-SO) in Yverdon, Sion, Fribourg, Le Lôcle and Saint-Imier as well as with the University of Neuchâtel and the University of Applied Sciences in North-western Switzerland in Brugg. It was not easy for such a complex project to deal with a team that was not only diverse but that was changing each semester, admits Didier Rizzotti, head of the Information and Communications Systems Institute at the Haute Ecole Arc, Saint-Imier. With her experience as a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Muriel Noca was responsible for getting everyone singing the same tune. “The EPFL looked after most of the microelectronics and mechanics workload, the High School of Engineering Vaud in Yverdon contributed with its expertise in power electronics, and the High School of Engineering of Sion was in charge of onboard intelligence. Software development for the satellite and ground station was provided by Saint Imier, while the communications systems were developed in Neuchâtel and Fribourg,” she says. In all, nearly 200 students worked on SwissCube, covering all aspects of manufacturing, from design to thermal and vacuum testing.

The current SwissCube has not finished its mission, but it already has a successor. A SwissCube 2, slightly larger than its predecessor, is to be built, again with the assistance of students. And another satellite with more industrial objectives is also planned with the support of the Universities of Geneva and Bern. Called CHEOPS, this small observation satellite will be launched in the next three to five years, its instruments directed away from Earth, searching for planets outside the Solar System.




En français dans le texte

Une famille de picosatellites suisses

Le picosatellite SwissCube, de moins d’un kilogramme et  de 10 centimètres de côté, gravite depuis septembre 2009 à plus de 700 kilomètres du sol. Produit d’un partenariat entre l’EPFL et le réseau des Hautes Ecole Spécialisées de Suisse occidentale (HES-SO) à Yverdon, Sion, Fribourg, Le Locle et Saint-Imier ainsi que l’Université de Neuchâtel et la Haute école spécialisée du nord-ouest de la Suisse, ce premier satellite entièrement réalisé par des étudiants sera suivi d’un «SwissCube 2» et de «CHEOPS» un satellite d’observation des exoplanètes avec le concours des universités de Genève et de Berne.

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